The federal government will provide funding for subsidised telehealth sessions and a new smartphone app providing information on the coronavirus as part of a $2.4 billion package.
As part of the coronavirus health support package, announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday morning, a new Medicare item will be created for telehealth sessions regarding COVID-19, and an app will be developed to provide up to date information on its spread and relevant guidance.
Initially for the next six months, Australians in home isolation or quarantine as a result of COVID-19 will get bulk billed health consultations via the phone or video services like Skype and WhatsApp. The program will cost $100 million over the first six months and will be available from Friday.
This is part of a government effort to “help contain the spread of the virus” and help to stop those infectious with the virus from visiting healthcare facilities unless they need to.
The telehealth sessions will be conducted by doctors, GPs, specialists, nurses and mental health allied workers. The bulk billed telehealth sessions will also be available to those considered more vulnerable to COVID-19, including those aged over 70, Indigenous Australians aged over 50, those with chronic heart conditions, parents with newborn babies and those who are pregnant.
But the Opposition is pushing for a much broader telehealth rebate covering many other medical appointments not involving the coronavirus or for vulnerable Australians.
“We want people being able to call their doctor and for that to be covered under Medicare bulk billing. What the government has announced today is only in relation to elderly Australians and some subsets of vulnerable people,” shadow health minister Chris Bowen said.
“Now, it seems to us that it would make much more sense to have that much more broadly available.”
A further $25 million will be provided to fund home medicines services, enabling patients to have their PBS-covered prescriptions filled online and delivered to their door. The rollout of electronic prescribing will also be fast-tracked across Australia with $5 million in Commonwealth funding.
The federal government will also soon roll-out a $30 million national communications campaign across TV, radio, digital and social media. It will provide people with “practical advice on how they can play their part in containing the virus and staying healthy”.
“The campaign will keep the health and aged care industry informed, including providing up-to-date clinical guidance, triaging and caring for patients, development of an app and and advice to workers in looking after their own safety,” the government said in a statement.
“The information will be based on the most up-to-date medical advice and will be targeted at the entire community as well as high risk groups and in up to 20 languages.”
The app will be a one-stop shop for COVID-19 information and guidance, but no further information has been provided on how it will be developed or when it will be rolled out.
The government announcement came just one day after Mr Bowen wrote to health minister Greg Hunt, calling on him to implement a number of new measures.
These included a number that have now been announced by the government, including the national communications campaign, creation of a standalone app and inclusion of telehealth under Medicare.
“It’s become increasingly clear to me that there is a significant degree of confusion in the community and a lack of information to general practitioners and healthcare professionals more generally. One thing the government I would suggest should take up is our suggestion for an app,” Mr Bowen said on Tuesday.
“A go-to, one-stop shop that anybody can log on to their telephone to get the latest advice from the Chief Medical Officer, the latest advice as to what they should do if they fear they might have COVID-19, advice as to how to handle self-isolation and quarantine etc.
“In the recent crisis many Australians including myself were regularly checking the ‘Fires Near Me’ app and the various state-based apps, and this is just as important now as it was for that,” he said.
“For people to have access to the latest information and a federally funded and sponsored app would be a very good step going forward for factual information and the latest advice.”
Similar apps have already been developed in several other countries dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.
The South Korean government has launched a smartphone app that helps and monitors patients who are in quarantine over the virus. Developed by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, the app allows someone in quarantine to stay in contact with a case worker and report on their progress.
The app also uses the phone’s GPS to keep track of their location and make sure they do not break their quarantine.