Telehealth: when technology and healthcare collide. From something as simple as a phone call to all the way to video chats and specialised apps, telehealth consultations now cover nearly every area of healthcare, from prevention and education to diagnosis and treatment.
The uptake of telehealth definitely sped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, 118.2 million telehealth services were delivered between March 2020 and July 2022 alone.1
But if you thought the pandemic was the start of telehealth, you’d be pretty far off. Australians have been able to access virtual medical care in some form since 1927, when people in remote areas consulted doctors via Morse code.2 Since then, virtual care has continued to evolve, much like a Pokémon.
The technology has come a pretty long way since 1927, but it’s still working to make healthcare more accessible and efficient. These days, telehealth does that by:
During the pandemic, we also saw another advantage of telehealth: it’s great for limiting the spread of illness. If you’re infectious or need to self-isolate, you can still see the doctor without potentially passing on the bug. (And if you do need to go to the doctor in person, you could be less likely to catch something from others.) Win.
Telehealth on its own isn’t a ‘service’ that you can claim on your Health Insurance. It’s a tool that’s used for a range of different health services. For Health Insurance, these usually fall under Extras Cover (because for treatments included in Hospital Cover you usually need to be in hospital).
If you’re using telehealth to access a service that is covered by your Health Insurance policy, most Health Funds have provisions for it. Of course, all the standard terms and conditions apply, like having completed any waiting periods and not having reached your limit for that Extra. It never hurts to double check with your Insurance Provider before booking your telehealth appointment.
You can also sometimes claim telehealth on Medicare. That includes some GP appointments. There are also several out-of-hospital telehealth services that fall under Medicare for those who live in an aged care facility, or are accessing services through the Aboriginal Medical Services.
There are all sorts of telehealth services that you might be able to access. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether a practitioner has gotten on board with the technology or not. Provided they’ve sorted out the technology, you should be able to access telehealth services for a range of services, including:
A telehealth appointment should run similarly to a regular appointment, except you’ll be speaking with your practitioner via either your phone or your computer screen.
Just like with a regular appointment, you should prepare any questions you have, gather any relevant information, and organise a support person if you’d like one.
Depending on whether your practitioner is using a phone call or a specific platform, there might be technological requirements. Your practitioner should give you all the information you need, including:
Some specialist telehealth platforms don't require patients to sign up or sign in, only click a link.
It’s never a bad idea to try out a new telehealth platform in advance of your appointment so you can troubleshoot if anything goes wrong.
There are a few restrictions to the telehealth services you can claim on Medicare. Mainly, to claim telehealth services on Medicare you need to drop in in person once a year. In simple terms, once you’ve seen a doctor face to face, they can offer you telehealth services with a Medicare rebate for 12 months after that. If you haven’t seen that doctor in person in more than 12 months, you can still access telehealth, but you won’t get any rebates.
There are quite a few exceptions to this rule. They include:
When you’re talking about your private health information, data privacy is no joke. Medical providers are legally required to protect your privacy in telehealth appointments in exactly the same way as they would in in-person appointments. It’s their responsibility to make sure their technology does that effectively.
Under the Privacy Act 1988, telehealth providers are legally required to protect your privacy, including protecting your personal information from misuse or loss, modification or disclosure. Under some circumstances, they’re also obliged to destroy or de-identify personal information. Providers may use data encryption and data storage protocols to make sure your information stays secure.