The pandemic changed the face of many industries, none more so than healthcare. When people needed to limit their in-person contact with others, telehealth appointments were the answer. While there remained a need for hands-on healthcare, telehealth allowed large numbers of Australians to gain access to vital care from their home.
Many patients embraced the telehealth option and enjoyed the benefits. Some healthcare providers have reverted back to face-to-face appointments only. Other providers give patients the option of visiting the clinic or a telehealth appointment from work or home.
What is a Telehealth Appointment?
Telehealth appointments are medical consultations that occur over the phone or online, rather than face-to-face. Also known as telemedicine appointments, the appointments began years ago for patients living in remote areas who need to travel long distances to receive medical care. Some telehealth appointments use video conferencing technology so the healthcare provider and patient can see each other, while others occur over the phone.
During a telehealth appointment, a doctor can ask questions about the patient's medical history, symptoms, and treatment, and offer advice for managing a condition.
A telehealth appointment can occur between a patient and a range of healthcare providers including general practitioners, specialist doctors, psychologists, dentists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and speech therapists.
What to Expect During a Telehealth Appointment?
There are a few things to know about setting a telehealth appointment:
You will need a smartphone, computer or tablet with a camera and internet connection if your appointment uses video conferencing technology. If you don’t need to see the healthcare provider, you will just need a phone.
How to Book a Telehealth Appointment
Some healthcare providers have a website that allows you to make a telehealth appointment. If you can’t find an option for booking online, call the office staff to ask if telehealth appointments are available. Choose an appointment date and time that suits you and enter your details. You should receive a confirmation email or text message with details of your booking.
Your appointment details will include instructions on how to access the telehealth platform that you will both use (such as Zoom, Skype etc) and how to log in to the appointment at the scheduled time.
Attending your Telehealth Appointment
If your appointment is a call, the healthcare provider will most likely call you. If it’s not clear how to make contact, ask the clinic before your appointment time to clarify with the office staff. If your appointment is a video conference call, join the call at your allocated time using the details provided in your confirmation.
If this is the first appointment with this healthcare provider, they may begin by asking about your medical history and your health concerns. If your condition has an element that can be demonstrated over a video conference call, the healthcare provider may ask you to move a limb, walk, cough etc. to provide them with more information.
The healthcare provider may ask you more questions before providing recommendations for the management and treatment of the condition.
Prescriptions and Referrals
As a result of your appointment, you may need medication, a test or a referral to another healthcare provider. If a prescription is required to obtain the medication, the script can be sent to you via email or directly to the pharmacy you use to fill your scripts. Referrals for tests of specialist appointments can also be emailed to you.
The healthcare provider may ask if you have any further concerns or questions before ending the appointment.
Benefits of Telehealth Appointments
There is a range of benefits that have been realised since telehealth appointments were used widely at the height of the pandemic including:
Benefits of Telehealth to the Patient
- No travel time for the patient to visit the healthcare provider’s rooms.
- The patient has no added fuel, parking or taxi fare costs with telehealth appointments.
- There’s no risk of the patient or healthcare provider passing on COVID-19 or other infectious diseases like there is at an in-person visit. The risk of being infected with an illness in a busy waiting room is also eliminated.
- Some patients find medical appointments intimidating or nerve-wracking whether it’s visiting the treatment rooms or being in the presence of a doctor; they’re more relaxed being in their home environment during the appointment.
- People in rural or overseas locations have access to the same quality healthcare as someone who lives close to the healthcare provider.
Benefits of Telehealth Appointments for the Healthcare Provider
- The healthcare provider doesn’t have the stress of a full waiting room if running behind. Patients are at home and can more easily reschedule their appointment time than if they have travelled to the appointment.
- A healthcare provider may need fewer support staff or can use virtual staff to manage the practice if there are fewer face-to-face patients to manage.
- Telehealth appointments can be more efficient and convenient. The healthcare provider can conduct the appointment from anywhere so they can eliminate the commute time and see more patients in a day than they could face-to-face.
Limitations of Telehealth Appointments
Healthcare providers aim to provide the same level of high-quality care via telehealth appointments as they do during face-to-face appointments. Telehealth can work well for some people more than others depending on a number of factors.
Some of the difficulties people face with telehealth appointments include:
- Technical difficulties such as internet connections or a problem with the video or audio
- Some patients may not have access to the technology or aren’t familiar with using a smartphone or computer so they find it difficult to join a telehealth call without the assistance of a family member.
- A patient with a vision or hearing impairment may find it difficult to communicate effectively over the telehealth platform technology
- Not all health conditions can be properly diagnosed over the internet. The healthcare provider may need to see a patient in person or complete a physical examination to accurately assess and diagnose a condition. The result of the telehealth appointment may be that an in-person consultation is required, so time and money may have been wasted with the telehealth appointment.
- If a prescription is required, the patient doesn’t receive a hard copy from the provider. The script needs to be sent to the patient via text, email or to their local pharmacy.
- Some patients prefer to speak to their healthcare provider face-to-face when discussing their health concerns.
Cost of Telehealth Appointments
Most telehealth appointments cost the same as an in-person consultation. Like any appointment you make with a new healthcare provider, be sure to ask about the up-front cost, if a Medicare rebate is available and whether you can claim part of the gap through your Extras health insurance cover. Telehealth appointments often have a different item number to in-office appointments. Ask the receptionist for the item number so you can check how much you can claim on your HIF Extras health insurance policy.
Most health insurance providers offered rebates for telehealth appointments soon after the Government’s pandemic announcement. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Australian Government announced that Medicare benefits would be available for telehealth services for all Medicare-eligible Australians. Medicare benefits are available for telehealth appointments with GPs, medical practitioners, specialists, consultant physicians, nurse practitioners, midwives, allied health providers, and oral and maxillofacial surgery dental practitioners.
We know times have been challenging, which is why we have introduced telehealth benefits for a range of services (such as psychology, dentistry, physiotherapy, speech pathology and more) under certain extras policies. Take a look at your options today and ensure your telehealth appointments are covered for when you need them.