Objective The aim of this study is to identify the extent to which the Medicare item numbers and incentives, introduced in July 2011, have been effective in stimulating telehealth activity in Australia.
Methods A retrospective descriptive study utilising data on the uptake of telehealth item numbers and associated in-person services, from July 2011 to April 2014, were obtained from Medicare Australia. The main outcome measures were number of telehealth services over time, plus uptake proportionate to in-person services, by jurisdiction, by speciality, and by patient gender.
Results Specialist consultations delivered by video communication and rebated by Medicare rose to 6000 per month, which is 0.24% of the total number of specialist consultations. The highest proportional uptake was in geriatrics and psychiatry. In 52% per cent of video consultations the patient was supported by an on-site healthcare provider, most commonly a general practitioner. There were substantial jurisdictional differences. A significantly lower percentage of female patients were rebated for item 99, which is primarily used by surgeons.
Conclusions Medicare rebates and incentives, which are generous by world standards, have resulted in specialist video consultations being provided to underserved areas, although gaps still remain that need new models of care to be developed.
What is known about the topic? Video consultations have been rebated by Medicare since July 2011 as a means of increasing access to specialist care in rural areas, aged care facilities and Aboriginal health services.
What does this paper add? The uptake of this telehealth initiative has grown over time, but still remains low. For half the video consultations the patient was supported by an on-site healthcare provider, most commonly a general practitioner. Geriatrics and psychiatry are the specialties with the highest proportional uptake.
What are the implications for practitioners? New models of care with a greater focus on consultation-liaison with primary care providers need to be developed to realise the potential of this initiative and to fill continuing gaps in services.