Four ways telehealth improves access to care

Photo of farmer standing in field holding a tablet under a crop irrigation system

Find out how telehealth technology improves access to care for Australians living in remote and very remote locations.

According to Australia’s Digital Health Agency between 13 March 2020 and 12 February 2022, 95.9 million telehealth services were delivered to 16.8 million patients, with more than $4.4 billion in benefits paid.

91,087 practitioners have now used telehealth services and incorporated it as a daily part of their health practice.

Telehealth technology is used to conduct remote consultations, to perform remote patient monitoring, as well as provide store-and-forward services.

Importantly, telehealth has established itself as a highly convenient solution that enables access to vital healthcare when patients cannot see a doctor face to face.

1. Reduce long wait times

A 2020 report titled, Waiting Time as an Indicator for Health Services Under Strain, found the median wait time across all medical specialities in Australian centres was 5.9 months.

Worsening waiting times are associated with patient dissatisfaction, delayed access to treatments, poorer clinical outcomes, increased costs, inequality, and patient anxiety. 

For patients with chronic health conditions, there may be a cumulative burden from waiting time. Patients with chronic disease may spend more time out of the workforce, which may contribute to a worsening socioeconomic position. Socioeconomic deprivation is known to be associated with an increased burden of disease that increases healthcare resource utilisation.

Telehealth has been found to reduce long wait times for healthcare appointments.

A 2016 Australian study found that telehealth interventions reduced waiting lists and improved the coordination of specialist services, and that telehealth should be considered in conjunction with clinical requirements.

Electronic consultations, including asynchronous telehealth and text-based provider-to-provider consultations, removed the need for face-to-face appointments between a patient and a specialist in 34-92 percent of cases.

Image-based triage also proved useful in reducing unnecessary or inappropriate specialist referrals, particularly in dermatology, ophthalmology, and otolaryngology (ENT).

2. Improve access to medical specialists

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, when compared to major cities, the rate of people reporting not having a GP nearby as a barrier to seeing one, was six times higher for remote and very remote areas, while almost 60 percent said they had no access to specialists nearby. 

This lack of access impacts quality of care and contributes to reduced wellbeing and shorter life expectancy in the rural Australian population compared to metropolitan residents.

A 2020 survey of almost 1,000 members of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) about the MBS telehealth items introduced by the Australian Government at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, found that telehealth has the potential to permanently improve accessibility and equity in accessing health services – particularly specialist health services – if maintained, post-Covid.

Key survey points include:

  • More than 90 percent of respondents had used telephone consults, almost two-thirds had used video-conferencing consults.
  • Almost 75 percent of respondents thought that the availability of telehealth attendance items contributed to improved accessibility of healthcare and almost 70 percent said patients were more likely to keep their telehealth appointments than face-to-face appointments.
  • Almost 82 percent of respondents noted patient feedback was “strongly positive for at least the majority”.
  • Almost 87 percent of respondents supported retaining the new telehealth items.
  • 36.7 percent of respondents thought telehealth enabled great access to specialist care for vulnerable groups (including disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous people, and patients with chronic complex conditions).
  • When asked if the introduction of the new telehealth attendance items led to better outcomes for patients, 40.8 percent said yes – mainly because telehealth increased the attendance of patients who otherwise would have cancelled or missed appointments.

3. Remove transportation barriers

In remote and very remote locations, the cost of travel for healthcare can be prohibitive. Telehealth removes the need for expensive travel for healthcare by delivering remote health professionals to the point of need.

Visionflex technology is used in one of the world’s most remote locations – the Antarctic – to deliver vital health services to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). AAD staff who live and work across four permanent research stations in Antarctica and sub-Antarctica, rely on the ProEX Telehealth Hub and its suite of integrated medical devices to connect with medical specialists on the mainland. Read the Antarctica case study.

Likewise, oil and gas company, ExxonMobil, uses Visionflex technology on 14 manned, offshore platforms and installations in the Bass Strait. Using the GEIS® General Examination Camera HD, on-site clinical staff can perform skin and wound examinations of patients and share the images in real time with the primary medical clinic on the mainland. Read the ExxonMobil case study.

4. Reduce the cost of healthcare

A 2020 Australian study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) found that telehealth reduced costs when health-system funded travel was prevented and when telehealth mitigated the need for expensive procedural or specialist follow-up by providing competent care in a more efficient way.

Four areas for potential savings include:

  • Productivity gains: telehealth can deliver cost savings by increasing capacity – a greater volume of patients can be managed with similar resources; clinician travel time is reduced because service delivery occurs via video conference; in-person consultations can be substituted with video consultations of a shorter duration; asynchronous telehealth enables clinicians to work at a time and place that suits them; telehealth helps reduce patient no-shows; when clinician costs are fixed (eg salaried), increased productivity will reduce the marginal cost per patient.
  • Reductions in secondary care: The use of telehealth to reduce secondary care can be realised through remote monitoring, hospital avoidance and triage.
  • Telementoring: While there has been minimal economic evaluation of telementoring, in the long term it is likely to result in inadvertent cost savings through the upskilling of generalist and allied health clinicians.
  • Alternate funding models: At this stage, there is limited evidence on savings to the health system from direct-to-consumer telehealth. However, assuming that individuals who choose to access commercial telehealth services would have instead accessed government-funded services, ultimately there is a reduction in health system costs.

Visionflex – clinical telehealth services anywhere, any time.