Health

Australia makes temporary changes to telehealth amid Omicron outbreak

The Australian government is briefly subsidising some telehealth services as it deals with a new COVID-19 outbreak. 

These include specialist inpatient video and phone consultation items under the Medicare Benefits Schedule, complex specialist telephone consultations and level C or longer telephone consultations for general practitioners. 

Offered until 30 June, these telehealth items have been made available nationwide, unlike when these were targeted only to hotspot areas previously. 

WHY IT MATTERS

These changes to telehealth are being done to support the continuity of patient care amid the current COVID-19 restrictions and to help relieve the pressure on the overwhelmed hospital system. 

“Telehealth has been a vital support during the pandemic providing greater flexibility in healthcare delivery at the most critical time and it continues to be a fundamental part of the pandemic response,” Minister Hunt noted in a media release over the weekend. 

It is seen that the short-term telehealth services will benefit vulnerable patients, including the elderly, people living in rural and remote areas, immunocompromised, under psychiatrist care, those living with cancer, and pregnant persons.

COVID-19 infections in Australia have been reaching record levels since the start of the new year. There have been already over a million cases due to a new surge caused by the Omicron variant – a variant first reported from South Africa in November. 

THE LARGER CONTEXT

While Australia pledged to make telehealth permanent, earlier this month the federal government said it has to exclude some subsidised telehealth items, which healthcare leaders warned could heavily impact patients. 

Aside from temporary telehealth items, the government introduced other measures to support the country’s health system amid the ongoing Omicron outbreak. 

Patients who tested positive via a rapid antigen test are now covered under the MBS item for GPs providing in-person care for COVID-positive patients. 

Over the next three months, the government is distributing over 20 million units of personal protective equipment to GPs, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and GP Respiratory Clinics. 

Moreover, it collaborated with the national public health information service, Healthdirect, to build a national assessment, triage, and notification infrastructure to help patients sick with COVID-19 access appropriate care. The service has commenced this week in Queensland with other states to follow shortly. 

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