COVID-19 has changed the way that Australians access healthcare.
In March, the Australian Government expanded Medicare-subsidised telehealth services to minimise the exposure of patients and health professionals to COVID-19. Since then, a staggering 4.7 million people have received 7.7 million telehealth services.
Dr Katherine Harding, La Trobe academic and Manager of the Allied Health Clinical Research Office at Eastern Health, describes it as a game-changer.
“Telehealth is the delivery of health services remotely, using a telephone or computer,” she explains. “The implementation of a service like this would normally require planning, acquisition of new technology and extensive staff training. Change of this scale in a health service would take years. Instead, it’s happened in a matter of weeks.”
Harding and Professor Nick Taylor have led a team investigating the early telehealth experiences of over 130 clinicians and managers at Eastern Health. “Half the survey respondents had no prior telehealth experience, so there was a significant learning curve involved for most clinicians,” Harding says.
What they discovered was a high level of resilience among healthcare professionals. “Clinicians and managers had to grapple with a telehealth platform, associated technology, and a new way of consulting with patients,” she says. “Overall, they handled the transition remarkably well and were very positive about the outcomes. As one clinician remarked, ‘It’s not the second coming, but it’s not the devil either.’”
Technological challenges were a dominant theme. “Some were surprised by how well the technology worked for them and their patients, while others reported not having the necessary equipment, cameras that didn’t work and connections that dropped out.”
The level of care available via telehealth was also addressed. “Physiotherapists commented on the safety implications of assessing balance without being present to prevent falls,” Harding says. “Some mental health clinicians found it difficult to build rapport, while others found patients were more open as a result of being in familiar surroundings.”
The unexpected benefits of telehealth included some advantages over conventional care. “Telehealth can be more time efficient, saves travel, has fewer missed appointments and is well suited to clients who find it safer or more convenient,” says Harding.
“COVD-19 has taken us into a new health landscape,” adds Harding. “In the past, telehealth was regarded a solution for rural and regional Australians. This experience has demonstrated that it has a place in metropolitan healthcare too. It’s not just about solving an access problem. It is about providing services that may be of greater benefit to patients."
Learn more about the Academic and Research Collaborative in Health (ARCH).