Australians are becoming increasingly reliant on telehealth during the coronavirus pandemic. Statistics from Services Australia show that the total number of telehealth consultations rose from 1.3 million in March to 5.8 million in April. You can make the most of your telehealth session with preparation.
- Australians are increasingly reliant on telehealth with 5.8 million total consultations in the month of April based on data from Services Australia.
- GPs say a good internet connection enables a smooth telehealth consultation.
- Mostly free TIS interpreting service is available 24/7 during your audio and video telehealth sessions through your GP clinic.
Telehealth consultations are becoming the norm as patients opt to speak to their GPs online or over the phone where possible.
Data from Services Australia shows the number of telehealth users jumped from 1.3 million in March to 5.8 million in April this year.
General practitioner Dr Billy Stoupas says telehealth minimises the patient and the medical team’s risks of contracting coronavirus.
But he believes that seniors from multicultural communities are not accessing the free telehealth service because they are not aware of it.
Dr Gillian Singleton, a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, is the medical director of the Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub in Melbourne.
She explains that bulk-billed or free telehealth consultations can be conducted over the telephone or via video chat on your device.
When you book in an appointment, the practice will ask if you need to have a face-to-face appointment, if you prefer an audio telehealth or video consultation.
Dr Singleton says your GP will send you a link for you to click on.
You can actually see your GP as you’re talking to them.
Here are a few simple steps to ensure that you make the most of your telehealth session:
- Make sure you provide the clinic with your correct phone number
- Find a quiet room
- Use a headset if you are worried about privacy
- Make sure you have good internet connection
- Find a support person to sit with you if you need help with the technology
- If you need help with translation, ask your GP about accessing free interpreting services
- Use a larger digital device if you have poor eyesight
- You may wish to prepare a list of questions or health concerns to discuss with your doctor
Dr Stoupas says the biggest mistake elderly patients make is that they would ring up the medical practice and ask to speak to the doctor immediately.
As doctors are often busy, it is best that you ring in advance to book an appointment.
With one-in-five Australians speaking a language other than English at home, Dr Billy says patients can seek out a GP who speaks your language via medical search sites like the Health Engine.
Medical practices often engage the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National), which is provided by the Department of Home Affairs with interpreters in over 160 languages throughout Australia.
In addition to providing interpreting for telehealth audio calls, TIS National has recently launched a new telehealth video interpreting service.
This new service allows medical professionals to book interpreters remotely to assist during video consultations for patients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD).
The majority of TIS National services are free for CALD individuals and available 24 hours a day.
Dr Stoupas says it is common for patients to ask for an interpreter during medical consultations which work like a three-way conference call where the doctor, patient and interpreter can talk together, translate and interpret as required.
As medical practices enhance their remote services to patients, Dr Singleton says patients no longer need to physically see their GP for referrals to medical tests such as blood tests, x-rays or ultrasounds.
We can organise an appointment for you and then send the referral. All you need to do is turn up on the time.
Getting your medication these days is also far more convenient than pre-COVID-19 times with general practitioners sending electronic scripts directly to pharmacies.
Dr Singleton says a lot of pharmacies are delivering medications to people who may be at risk and not comfortable going out at the moment.
Dr Stoupas recommends using your own monitoring device such as a blood pressure machine, if you have one, to provide your doctor with extra information during a telehealth session.
Telehealth has also become an important alternative for people facing mental health issues during coronavirus.
Statistics from Beyond Blue show that before COVID-19, between 10 to 15 per cent of older people experience depression while 10 per cent experience anxiety.
The likelihood of depression increases to 35 per cent for older people who live in residential aged-care.
The uptake of telehealth in mental health consultations had been slow until COVID-19.
According to Medicare statistics by Services Australia, only 66,000 out of 2.4 million visits to psychiatrists in 2018-19 involved telehealth.
However, this April alone, 52 per cent of all mental health consultations took place via telehealth.
These days, Perth-based psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Khanna is busy providing mental health support to older people during the coronavirus pandemic.
He believes mental health professionals who understand their clients’ language and culture can better assist them with their depression especially over telehealth during COVID-19.
Dr Khanna has seen elderly patients who came to Australia to visit their children before the pandemic. They became depressed when they were prohibited from leaving the country due to lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Their visa expired and they have to spend a lot of money to get back to their countries and things got worse and worse.
Despite Dr Khanna’s ability to converse in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and English, most of his clients are not from multicultural backgrounds due to stigma and shame around mental health.
According to Dr Khanna, while patients would prefer to see their GPs from the same cultural background as themselves, this is not the case in mental health even though practitioners are bound by Australian law to maintain their clients’ confidentiality.
I’ve got a patient from very minor community, hardly few persons living in WA from that particular country and he was very concerned.
Many of Dr Khanna’s clients are from rural or remote communities in other states and territories who do not have access to psychiatrists who speak their language.
Dr Khanna advises that users do a test run before their actual session to avoid technical issues.
He says that sometimes people don't know where to look into the camera and they may start screaming or yelling, or they don’t talk at all.
He recommends engaging a support person such as a nurse, GP or a trusted family member if required during a telehealth consultation.
Dr Singleton encourages people who are seeing a practitioner for the first time to check if any costs are associated with the appointment.
Their GP can help them draw up a mental health care plan which allows them to access up to ten fully or partially paid therapy sessions subsidised by the government.
Dr Gillian says while telehealth is not a complete substitute for physical consultations, it is amazing what you can achieve over the phone with some video elements from a distance.
We were always taught at medical school that ninety per cent of a consultation is actually taking a really good history and only ten per cent is physical examination anyway.
Nonetheless, Dr Stoupas suggests seeing a general practitioner near you even if you are only accessing a telehealth consultation.
Medical clinics across Australia are following strict social distancing and hygiene guidelines to reduce the risks of infection from coronavirus.
With more outbreaks likely to occur, Dr Singleton urges patients not to put off their medical appointments due to fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2.
There are things that you can put off for a little bit but if you put them off for too long, it can be a major problem.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
If you need interpretation, call the national Translating and Interpreting Service on 131 450 and ask to connect to your preferred service.
If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.