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Government’s teleheath ‘reticence’ hindering COVID-19 recovery

Newly released data from Optometry Australia (OA) has revealed the detrimental impact of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on the eye health sector, underlining the need for government support of telehealth optometry.

On 12 August, the peak professional body released the results of a survey it conducted in late May involving 3,290 members to understand the impact of the initial lockdown on the profession.

Lyn Brodie.

OA revealed that more than 90% of its members closed their practices or scaled back their hours of operation at the height of the pandemic in April.

At the same time, 96% of practice owners and self-employed optometrists saw their revenue decrease with a quarter seeing their income decline by 75% or more. The pandemic also contributed to a 74% plummet in Medicare patient consultations in April, with 192,720 performed compared with 749,780 in the same month of 2019.

CEO Ms Lyn Brodie said OA’s research indicates that it will probably be some time yet before optometry, in general, returns to pre-COVID conditions.

“We believe that around 50% of optometrists in Australia are currently working fewer hours now than they were pre-COVID-19. It is critical that they can return to optimal working capacity as quickly as possible to support community eye health needs,” Brodie said.

She said the Federal Government’s reticence to include Medicare rebates for telehealth optometry is exacerbating the sector’s recovery, and therefore the ability to ensure quality eyecare for the whole community.

“We believe access to telehealth would have enabled many more practices to support patients during the height of the pandemic and likewise, could encourage more people to access the eye health care they need now,” she said.

Brodie noted that consumers are increasingly embracing technology as part of their health regime and the ongoing pandemic may likely accelerate this behaviour.

“It is therefore important that the Government supports telehealth optometry so that we can be certain that our profession is in a strong position to meet the eye health needs of patients who are unable to access face-to-face care,” she said.

OA’s research also highlights that in April, 77% of practice owners reduced their staffing levels and more than 90% of optometrists moved to some form of Government financial support with the majority of employers and employees accessing JobKeeper.

More reading:

Missed appointments data brings COVID-19 impact into focus

Upward trajectory: Eyecare sector charts recovery path