Telehealth Vital During Pandemic

Establishing new ways of caring for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic was crucial to ensuring access to essential healthcare, such as contraception. However, new restrictions limiting Australia's telehealth Medicare rebate system leave the nation at risk of failing to meet the healthcare needs of the population as the pandemic continues.

In the British Medical Journal, Sexual and Reproductive Health Family Planning NSW Medical Director Dr Deborah Bateson led an international editorial submission which highlights how the pandemic has led to reduced access to contraception and safe abortion care. Vulnerable populations including young people, Indigenous communities, refugees and asylum seekers were disproportionately affected by this.

Governments around the globe have responded with rapid innovations which have removed barriers to care and, in some cases, improved access to essential healthcare, the authors wrote.

"Telehealth delivered healthcare to more than 1500 Family Planning NSW patients during lockdown and accessing contraception was the number one reason people used our Telehealth service," Dr Bateson said.

"However, recent restrictions to Australia's telehealth Medicare rebate system compound the reduced access to healthcare already being experienced and leave the nation at risk of falling behind countries like Canada, the UK and France in terms of healthcare access.

"Telehealth was a lifeline for patients during lockdown, but Family Planning NSW is now in a position of turning away clients who do not meet the government's new telehealth criteria announced in late July.

"Government changes mean we can no longer offer telehealth to new clients or anyone not seen face-to-face by our doctors in the past year. This significantly restricts our patients' access to telehealth and threatens our capacity to continue delivering vital healthcare to some of the most marginalised communities.

"People seek our telehealth service for a range of reasons including because their regular GP may not offer specialised services, because they don't have a regular doctor or because they simply don't know where else to turn.

"Every time we turn away a person who needs access to something like contraception, it is tragic, and we know it can have a ripple-on effect which can, without exaggeration, last generations. No telehealth can mean no healthcare.

"We are going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time and we need access to telehealth re-instated for people needing contraception and other essential, specialised health care."

Dr Bateson said in-person appointments at Family Planning NSW's five clinics are an essential part of the care model and are always offered to patients as a choice, but the pandemic has created new needs which require the ongoing option of telehealth.

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