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Medicare-funded telehealth vital for abortion access

Medicare-rebated telehealth improves access to medical abortion and is more likely to be used by patients living in regional and remote areas according to new research from Family Planning Australia. The analysis of Family Planning Australia clinic data from April 2020 to March 2022 supports the need for Medicare-rebated telehealth to promote equitable access to medical abortion. The research study, published in the journal Sexual Health shows that during the periods when Medicare-rebated telehealth has been available, more patients used telehealth to access time-sensitive medical abortion. Data also indicated that patients in regional and remote areas were consistently more likely to use telehealth than city-based patients.

Medicare rebates for telehealth were introduced in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, between July 2020 and June 2021 they were largely restricted to patients who had visited a service in the previous 12 months. Researchers found a sharp drop in telehealth access to medical abortion when there was no access to Medicare.

In April 2020 about 70 per cent of patients seeking medical abortion at Family Planning Australia were doing so through telehealth but in July 2020, when Medicare telehealth access was restricted, use of telehealth for medical abortions fell to around 15 per cent and then dropped down to less than 5 per cent for several months. Telehealth use increased again after telehealth restrictions were lifted for sexual and reproductive health services, with about 30 per cent of patients receiving medical abortion via telehealth in August 2021.

Crucially, researchers also found that, patients living in regional and remote areas were more likely to choose telehealth than their city-dwelling counterparts. After Medicare-rebates were reinstated, patients in regional and remote areas, 42 per cent, were twice as likely to use telehealth for medical abortion compared with people from major cities, 20 per cent.

Family Planning Australia's Medical Director, Dr Clare Boerma said only about 10 per cent of Australia's GPs are registered to prescribe medical abortion, so patients often need to turn to specialised reproductive healthcare services which they haven't visited previously.

"Our clinic data shows that when access to Medicare-rebated telehealth is restricted, so is equitable access to medical abortion," Dr Boerma said.

"Our service has a strong focus on urgent, low, and no-cost care for at-risk communities. This research confirms that when rebates are available, telehealth is useful to support equitable access to medical abortion particularly for those from regional and remote areas. For some patients, no telehealth can mean no healthcare. Medicare-rebated telehealth for reproductive healthcare is set to expire in December 2023. These rebates must be made permanent to ensure equitable and affordable access for all people to time-sensitive, essential sexual and reproductive healthcare."

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Media enquiries:

P: 0402 880 653

E: media@fpnsw.org.au

W: https://www.fpnsw.org.au

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