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Survey of specialists shows telehealth can improve access and equity permanently

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has surveyed its members on the roll out of telehealth services, with the results showing telehealth has the potential to permanently improve accessibility and equity in accessing health services, if maintained.

Nearly 1,000 members responded. Full details of the survey results are available for download here.

Telehealth now forms a significant part of many specialists’ practice – almost three fifths (58%) of members who responded have reported that more than half of their practice is undertaken by telehealth.

RACP President Prof John Wilson AM says telehealth has been important at a time of national health crisis, but that it also has the potential to permanently improve equity and access to specialists. It will significantly shift the burden from public hospitals to MBS- funded alternatives.

“Three quarters of members who responded have reported that they thought the availability of these new items has increased accessibility of healthcare to their patients and 70% stated that patients were generally more likely to keep their telehealth appointments than face to face appointments,” Prof Wilson said.

“The swift uptake of telehealth has helped stop the spread of COVID-19 but in many cases it has also increased accessibility and equity – it’s been a welcome silver lining at a time of national health crisis.

“The potential for a permanent increase in accessibility and equity can’t be ignored. It’s clear we need to find ways to extend and improve telehealth in Australia.

“Telehealth has been particularly helpful for patients who find it a challenge to attend appointments in person such as those with mobility issues, immune-suppressed patients, those living in rural and remote areas and Indigenous patients who feel more culturally safe attending appointments in their own environment.

“What’s clear from the success of telehealth is that there’s no going back to how things were done in the past.

“The responses from members and their experiences in working with telehealth during the Covid crisis period will inform our recommendations to government over the coming weeks and months,” Prof Wilson said.

In delivering the results of the survey to the federal government, the RACP has recommended that telehealth should be seen as part of the foundation of future health reforms to improve the accessibility and quality of healthcare to Australians and potentially to the New Zealand community as further data comes to hand.

In particular, given that a significant cohort of patients treated by specialist and consultant physicians are those with chronic and complex care needs, the increased accessibility to physician care and reduced failure to attend rates promoted by telehealth suggests there are long term returns from retaining the new telehealth items in terms of measures such as reducing avoidable hospital admissions and increasing treatment adherence.

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