Cancer care

Cancer groups call to keep telehealth after COVID-19 pandemic

Cancer professional bodies are calling on the government to retain MBS telehealth service items beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they have delivered huge benefits to cancer care that should not be abandoned.

A submission to government from the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) and Cancer Council Australia says there has been an overwhelmingly positive response from healthcare practitioners and patients to the ‘temporary’ telehealth services that were made available from March 2020.

The telehealth items have enabled oncologists and other healthcare practitioners to improve access to cancer care and provide high quality care for many patients in metropolitan as well as rural and regional setting, it says.

A survey of COSA members on the impact of telehealth items received an unprecedented number of responses that were unanimous in their support for increased usage of telehealth for cancer care. Comments from oncologists cited benefits such as ‘reduced financial and time toxicity’.

“For years, I have banged my head in frustration why my patients who live in metro Melbourne can’t be offered telehealth,” said Associate Professor Arun Azad, a medical oncologist at the Peter Maccallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne.

“Instead of having to drive in, pay for parking, sit in a waiting room for an hour, and then drive home again. This is a waste of their time and money and in many cases is totally unnecessary as they could receive the same level of care via telehealth,” he said in the submission.

South Australian medical oncologist Associate Professor Chris Karapetis said the availability of a telehealth option had enabled practitioners to conduct remote reviews for treatment decision-making and post therapy monitoring where otherwise this would have been difficult or not possible.

“The items have provided my patients and I with a real choice as to the most appropriate mode of consultation. Sometimes it’s telehealth, sometimes it’s face-to-face. Without them people would have avoided appointments and not received appropriate care,” he said.

According to the COSA, the pandemic social distancing restrictions had forced cancer patients to try  telehealth and they had shown great satisfaction with the services. Consumer surveys showed that 80% took up the offer of a telehealth consult and 76% of patients would like video consults to be an ongoing option for appropriate consults.

“Before COVID, uptake of telehealth was low despite government incentives. Now that this is standard practice for almost every doctor due to new MBS items, they would feel comfortable to use telehealth for other purposes including clinical trials using the teletrial model,” said Professor Sabe Sabesan, a medical oncologist in Townsville.

While recognising that telehealth is not appropriate for all patients or all types of consultation, it should certainly become integral part of the ‘consultation ‘mix’, according to COSA.

“[We] are calling for the MBS to provide ongoing support to telehealth services for GPs, medical practitioners, nurse practitioners and allied health providers, beyond the temporary arrangements,” they said.

“We seek to work closely with the Australian Department of Health as they consider options for recovery post pandemic, and advocate for the needs and preferences of patients and healthcare providers to be as central to decisions as are issues of safety, quality and cost.”

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