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Now is not the time to limit people’s access to telehealth services

Woman accessing online telehealth services on a computer.
Woman accessing online telehealth services on a computer.

Recent decisions by the Australian Government have potentially negative consequences for women, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Here’s how. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government acted quickly to broaden the Medicare Benefits Schedule around telehealth services, allowing GPs and other health professionals to use Medicare item numbers for new patients.

This was a far-sighted response. The delivery of telehealth services kept medical services timely and available during the first period of hard lockdowns, protecting both health care workers and the public.  

Opening up telehealth services gave patients more choice in the doctors they could consult around services. It was a huge boon for people seeking services that their regular GP might not provide. It was particularly important for people seeking the medical termination of pregnancy and STI testing and treatment.

Last week this was wound back. Now it is only possible to access Medicare funded telehealth with your regular GP or practice, and only if you have been an active patient with that practice within the last 12 months.

This is bad news for people seeking sexual and reproductive health services. Your GP

  • Might work in a clinic that doesn’t offer specialist sexual and reproductive health services
  • Might not have done the additional training required to deliver specific sexual and reproductive health services
  • Might be a conscientious objector

 It doesn’t make sense that the Government would do this with the virus still circulating in the community. The reason the Minister Greg Hunt has given for the decision has been a concern about the quality of some pop-up telehealth services, particularly those associated with pharmacies.

But the Government’s response to that concern is clumsy. In fact, sexual and reproductive health service providers have described it as ‘short sighted and dangerous’. It particularly affects women’s ability to access medical terminations.

In Tasmania there are limited numbers of GP clinics providing medication terminations and more often than not women must go to another practice to access this service. Even in those states where the service is widespread women often go to another clinic as they may not wish to access this service through their regular GP.  For example, Marie Stopes International has reported that it has seen a 140% increase in demand for medical terminations through its telehealth services since the beginning of the pandemic.

The people most affected by these changes are those whose circumstances make them more vulnerable to poor health outcomes: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBTIQ+ communities, people with disabilities, migrant and refugee communities and sex workers. It’s difficult to believe this decision has been made while the pandemic is still placing such pressure on our communities and health system.

Women’s Health Tasmania is supporting advocacy being led by women’s organisations across Australia. If you wish to play an active part in this campaign to support people’s access specialised healthcare through GPs and take the strain off healthcare providers sign the petition being organised by Fair Agenda here