Now is not the time to shy away from innovation

| July 29, 2020

COVID-19 has undoubtedly provided the challenge of the century to our health system, but it has also kick-started some much-needed disruption to areas of healthcare which have been characterised by inertia and an unwillingness of both funders and providers to do things differently, regardless of the opportunities available.

Telehealth and virtual healthcare stand out as opportunities which should continue to be leveraged in a post-pandemic world. Patients rightly expect that the positive benefits experienced with these models of care during COVID-19 will continue now and into the future.

In a Perspectives Brief, Providing telehealth in general practice during COVID-19 and beyond, published by the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA) Deeble Institute for Health Policy Research in July, South Australian GP Dr Chris Bollen and Deeble Institute Director Dr Rebecca Haddock provide case studies which demonstrate the opportunities to improve health outcomes and patient experience of care through use of telehealth consultations in general practice.

Six case studies demonstrate “at the coalface” how telehealth can benefit GPs, maximise equity of access to healthcare, and support patients in developing their own health knowledge and skills.

They include team-base care models using telehealth and primary care nurses to improve management of chronic disease, especially in older patients with multiple and complex chronic conditions.

Co-author of the Perspectives Brief, Dr Chris Bollen, said GPs were finding that their daily workflows had changed for the better through having telehealth consultation options as well as traditional face-to-face contact with patients.

A second AHHA report, The effective and sustainable adoption of virtual health care, builds on the general practice case studies, and calls for sustained policy efforts across big-picture areas such as funding, governance and workforce in order to embed sustainable long-term virtual health care models.

During the pandemic period, GP and outpatient clinic visits have been substituted with phone calls and videoconferencing; there have been some limited functional improvements such as e-prescribing; and in some places, such as in “virtual hospitals”, there has been some redesign of tasks and processes.

However, a forward-looking approach to virtual health care would involve planning to embrace the opportunities which may be available, for example, through remote monitoring, data-driven quality improvement, artificial intelligence and other innovations, to create new models of care.

Importantly, it will require more than policy-making on the run, such as the recent “stage 7” telehealth decision by the Australian Government where telehealth GP providers need to have an existing and continuous relationship with a patient—defined as seeing that patient in the last 12 months—in order to provide MBS-funded telehealth services.

While this may stop the “pop-up” online services opposed by doctor organisations, and limit opportunities for over-servicing, it will also be a huge barrier for rural communities where access to any GP can be a problem, for healthy people who infrequently see their GP, people whose local practice is booked out for weeks, those requiring sexual and reproductive health services, and people who want to change doctors.

Providers must also recognise that for personal reasons, people may prefer to seek care away from their regular GP for some very sensitive matters.

At AHHA we think key areas of focus to maximise the long-term benefits of virtual health care include:

• Patient-centredness, including codesign with patients, and measuring what matters to patients;

• Equity, including proactive efforts to ensure affordability, equitable access to technology and digital literacy;

• Cross-sector leadership and governance, across jurisdictions and the primary and acute care sectors, and in partnership with industry and researchers;

• Digitally-capable health workforce development, prioritising team-based care and new roles needed to optimise integration of technology into health care;

• Interoperability, standards and quality assured technology; and

• Funding for reforms, including better use of data and evaluation.

Now—more than ever—as we face the most significant health and economic challenges experienced in a century, we need big-picture thinking and serious policy reform efforts that are agile and innovative.

We cannot shy away from disruptive thinking and the need to do business differently in order to achieve better results that take full advantage of the modern technologies available to us.

Equally, we should not sacrifice new thinking in order to maintain current healthcare practices, processes and professional interests.

Providing telehealth in general practice during Covid-19 and beyond is available here.

The effective and sustainable adoption of virtual health care is available here.