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January 23, 2022

Government announces permanent telehealth and more rural GPs and nurses

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The Federal Government plans to make telehealth a permanent fixture for Australian patients. Telehealth has played a critical role in ensuring the continuity of care for Australian patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering greater flexibility to health care.

Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the news at a press conference on this morning saying that since early March 2020, more than 86.3 million COVID-19 MBS telehealth services have been delivered to 16.1 million patients with more than 89,000 providers have used telehealth services.

Mr Hunt also announced $31.8 million for the Workforce Incentive Program (WIP) to provide additional funding to general practices through the inclusion of ongoing telehealth items in the calculation of the Standard Whole Patient Equivalent (SWPE).

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has welcomed the Federal Government announcement of permanent telehealth, which the College has been advocating for.

RACGP President Dr Karen Price said making telehealth permanent was a big step forward for Australia’s health care system. ‘This is a significant step forward for general practice and our entire health system.

‘Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic telehealth has proven to be a valuable complement to face-to-face care, it increased access to care for patients in need and no doubt saved lives. I know patients and GPs alike will be glad and relieved to hear that these services will remain and will continue to support access to care for people across Australia.’

The RACGP President also welcomed additional funding to practices through the inclusion of ongoing telehealth items in SWPE calculations. ‘The RACGP has been calling for the inclusion of telehealth consultations in the SWPE calculation, which underpin practice funding, since telehealth started and it is good to see that the Government recognises telehealth as part of the size of the practice.’

Dr Price said delivering better health services in regional and rural Australia was sorely needed.

‘Addressing Australia’s rural and remote GP workforce deficit is a top priority for the RACGP – everyone deserves access to high-quality primary care regardless of their postcode. The RACGP was pleased to be part of the formal Distribution Priority Area (DPA) review process with the Department of Health to address the doctor shortage crisis, and we welcome these changes.

‘We need to attract more GPs to train and work in rural and remote Australia and expanding the DPA classification will help. It means more rural and regional areas will be able to utilise the DPA system when recruiting doctors for their region; they will have more choice of doctors to work in their local communities, and it will lead to increased access to GP and primary care for regional and rural communities.

This morning’s announcement also outlined plans to attract doctors and nurse practitioners to rural and remote Australia by waiving all or part of their Higher Education Loan Programme debt. Starting 1 January 2022, the Government will eliminate an eligible individual’s remaining HELP debt after they’ve worked a rural or remote practice for a certain period.

Dr Price said the rural GP workforce shortage is a complex problem. ‘However, research shows that incentivising GPs in training to live and work outside of metropolitan areas can help improve access to high quality care for communities in need. And GPs who do train in rural or remote areas are far more likely to remain living and working there, after seeing all the opportunities and benefits of the career and lifestyle.’

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