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Telehealth Medicare expansion to cover allied health

Telehealth Medicare items will be expanded to encompass allied health professionals, such as optometrists, by Monday as the Federal Government works to maintain access to healthcare amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Federal Health Minister Mr Greg Hunt made the announcement yesterday alongside Professor Michael Kidd, the principal medical advisor to the Department of Health and Professor of Primary Care Reform at the Australian National University.

It will be the fourth stage in a rapid expansion of telehealth services that can be delivered under Medicare during the pandemic. Currently, there are 20 new items with mandatory bulk-billing that have been added for specialists, including ophthalmologists, consultant physicians and psychiatrists.

“We are looking by Monday of next week at having a whole of population telehealth capacity; that means for mental health, allied health and general practice,” Hunts said, while also cautioning against inappropriate item use.

“It is important that this is done carefully to ensure these new items do not have unintended adverse consequences for patients or the health system, while allowing general practitioners and medical specialists to continue to work during the pandemic, using phone and video where clinically appropriate.”

Hunt said he recognised telehealth was not appropriate for the management of all healthcare problems and, in many cases, face-to-face consultations would still be necessary.

“It is imperative Australians continue to receive the high-quality medical care and advice they expect and deserve from their health care providers. We cannot risk a reduction in the standard of medical care provided to the people of Australia,” he said.

“We emphasise the importance of using telehealth item numbers responsibly, appropriately and for the right reasons during this pandemic.”

For details on when telehealth items can be used, Hunt urged health professionals to consult www.mbsonline.gov.au.

“This is new territory for many healthcare providers, who want to meet the challenges of providing health care during this medical crisis.”

In a live televised announcement in Canberra, Kidd added: “The experience of other epidemics around the world shows us that if the primary care system collapses, we are at risk of more loss of life for regular conditions that could have been prevented perhaps more than from the infectious agent itself.”

The announcement builds on the Australian Government’s initial Medicare response to COVID-19, which included 10 new videoconference and 10 telephone items for specialists, consultant physicians and psychiatrists to provide services to vulnerable people within the community or in suspect cases in self-isolation due to COVID-19.

These were later upgraded to enable provision of services via telehealth where the health professional is in isolation or quarantine due to the virus.

RANZCO has confirmed to its members that bulk-billed telephone consultation services can be provided by specialists, which includes ophthalmologists, for certain vulnerable or isolated patients who meet a strict criteria.

Lock-down for NZ optometrists

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Association of Optometrists (NZAO) Council advised its members on Tuesday that all non-essential businesses, which comprises optometry, must shut down at noon on 25 March for at least four weeks.

Their recommendation followed New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s directive that the nation’s COVID-19 alert was escalating into lock-down of all non-essential services.

“Our understanding is that optometry is not currently listed as an essential service, which means that in most instances NZAO recommends that optometry practices should make plans to close by noon on 25 March,” an NZAO statement said.

The association acknowledged that some members are currently in discussion with their local District Health Board eye clinics and medical centres to continue to provide community eye health services.

“If members wish to provide eye health services after 12 noon on 25 March, then you must have appropriate personal protective equipment for yourself and staff, and appropriate infection control protocols for your patients,” NZAO advised.

On Monday, Optometry Australia stated that it expected there to be further announcements that may impact optometry in coming days and weeks

“And [we] hope to have positive news in the near future about telehealth and Medicare opportunities for optometry,” it stated.

“We believe we have a duty to support [our members] to protect the health of [their] colleagues, patients and communities. To this end we are seeking to advise governments on how time-sensitive and emergency optometric care can continue to be provided, should more extensive service shut-downs be mandated by governments in order to limit the further spread of COVID-19.”