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How do we integrate telehealth into existing models of care?

19 Apr 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

Low urgency presentations to emergency departments (EDs) are a significant issue throughout Australia, representing around one third of all ED patients.

The bulk of these presentations are from 15-35 years-olds, with people aged 65 and older also making up a large portion.

The issue places undue stress on ED workers and affects access to primary care for people who really need it.

Healthy North Coast is seeking to address this with a new initiative known as Primary Care Access. Using telehealth and an algorithm designed by healthcare workers, the model aims to triage patients virtually and determine who needs urgent face-to-face care versus lower acuity treatment.

People with non-life-threatening ailments such as skin infections, sprains and respiratory illnesses – who often present to ED as a first line form of self-treatment – are among the types of patients being encouraged to take up the service.

Chief Executive Monika Wheeler – a speaker at this year’s National Telehealth Conference – says integration is an important focus of the initiative, with the end-goal to provide a seamless care experience and improve health outcomes for patients.

“When accessing healthcare through a combination of telehealth and face-to-face appointments, patients can sometimes face difficulties or delays in getting the care they need. The health system is complex to navigate, so it is important we make this an easier, more seamless, experience,” she said ahead of her speech.

In doing this, Ms Wheeler and team have worked hard to redesign new referral pathways for urgent care needs based on consumer feedback on the type of service model needed.

After their virtual triage, patients can access and book face-to-face appointments directly with participating general practitioners and community pharmacists from a single touchpoint, with confidence they are being given the right care option.

The direct booking function of the service, called North Coast Health Connect, is amongst first of its kind in Australia. It provides a direct link between a telehealth triage service with local face to face services.

“Instead of calling around or being ferried between providers, patients can easily find the healthcare service they need and be funnelled through to them via a warm referral process. This saves the consumer time and frustration and ultimately optimises their care.”

Ms Wheeler says designing this model has been an exciting process, but has not been without challenges.

“It is really difficult to try to redesign a system with so many moving parts and it will take us a long time to complete what we have started. We have had to build a strong case for change, convince people to do things differently, and form new partnerships and alliances to make it all work.

Thankfully, there is a lot of interest on a federal and state level and development work is going on which will support further improvements in this space over time – but, nonetheless, it’s not easy.”

Despite the challenges involved, Ms Wheeler believes the legwork will pay off.

“There are clear benefits for both health workers and patients and, in my mind, is it certainly worth pursuing. Curbing the flow of demand from low urgency presentations in local EDs makes sense on both a consumer and system level.”

Monika Wheeler is Chief Executive of Healthy North Coast and is passionate about increasing rural communities’ access to quality health care. Monika has twenty years’ experience leading primary health care commissioning and social policy reform and holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Sydney.

She has worked at the local, state, national and international levels in government and not-for-profit organisations including six years as an Adviser to Tanya Plibersek MP, Minister for the Environment and Water.

She is due to present at the National Telehealth Conference later this month where she will share practical insights from her project and talk more about the integration of telehealth.

This year’s National Telehealth Conference is one of three conferences to take place at Connect Virtual Care.

One pass for Connect Virtual Care gives delegates access to the National Telehealth Conference, the Healthcare Cyber Security Conference, and the Medication Safety & Efficiency Conference.

The event will be held 27-28 April 2023 at the Hilton Sydney.

Learn more and register your place here.



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