By Kirsty Machon
Albany optometrist Alison Steer is delighted to be saving her patients from waiting times or a drive of up to 400 kilometres for ophthalmology services, with the help of new Medicare telehealth items.
The new items, which became available on 1 September, cover telehealth consultations provided to non-metropolitan patients located more than 15 kilometres by road from their ophthalmologist.
Patients of Aboriginal Medical Services, residential aged-care facilities, and all patients in Tasmania and the Northern Territory may also be eligible for a rebate for telehealth services.
Ms Steer’s practice has offered telehealth consultations for the past 18 months, working with a Perth-based ophthalmologist. About 30 consultations have been undertaken.
She welcomes the introduction of the Medicare item, and encourages other optometrists to take advantage of the opportunity to make clinical care more convenient and timely for patients.
Among the patients who have benefited from telehealth consultations in Albany are pre-surgical cataract patients, patients being comanaged for glaucoma, and those requiring treatment with scheduled medicines.
‘For patients who need to have a consultation with the ophthalmologist before cataract surgery, that means one visit less to the ophthalmology clinic,’ Ms Steer said.
Ms Steer undertakes her consultations via Skype, and says this has been a cost-effective and reliable option, requiring only the readily-downloadable Skype software, a stable internet connection and a webcam.
She experimented with consultations via iPad but this was not so successful.
A telehealth trial at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne found concerns with Skype, including drop-outs, and the hospital elected to purchase a teleconferencing system. Ms Steer has not experienced drop-outs using Skype so far.
The ophthalmologist with whom she undertakes the consultations, Dr Angus Turner, can also switch to a phone in the event of a problem but to date has not needed to do so.
Ms Steer’s patients have been overwhelmingly positive about telehealth, embracing the new experience. No-one has refused the option and they have comfortably adapted to appearing on a webcam.
‘They appreciate the convenience,’ Ms Steer said.
Patients may otherwise wait between three or four months for a local ophthalmology appointment, or drive distances of up to 400 kilometres.
Ms Steer says one enjoyable bonus of participating in telehealth consultations is that it is also a learning opportunity for the optometrist.
Optometry Australia played a key role in the introduction of the rebate for telehealth services, arguing that it would benefit many patients who might otherwise have difficulties accessing timely ophthalmology services.
For practitioners who prefer not to use Skype, an alternative option for introducing telehealth is to purchase an off-the-shelf conferencing product designed for a PC or Mac.
More information is available in a Practice Note on the Optometry Australia website.
Members can call their practice IT adviser or contact Optometry Australia’s national professional services manager, Luke Arundel on 03 9668 856003 9668 8560 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.