Illawarra cut off from telehealth services

It was billed as an innovative way to link Illawarra patients with medical specialists from across Australia and around the globe.

Video medical consulting from the familiarity of a GP’s rooms was to remove barriers for people having difficulty getting to major cities.

But the federal government announced it will cut telehealth services to outer metropolitan areas from January next year - meaning Illawarra residents won’t have access.

Patients from Helensburgh to Shellharbour will no longer be eligible for Medicare-funded services, unless they are patients of an Aboriginal Medical Service or live in an aged care facility.

Illawarra-Shoalhaven Medicare Local board chairman Brett Thomson today said he had voiced his concerns to Illawarra MPs.

Telehealth was the future of health care services and was ‘‘particularly advantageous in areas of workforce shortage such as the Illawarra’’, Professor Thomson said.

Doctor Lawrie Noonan of Dapto Family Physicians said he was shocked by the decision.

‘‘I’d like to express my concern and dismay about the elimination of what seemed to be a surprisingly innovative step by the the government and Medicare,’’ he said.

‘‘Doctors from Dapto are excluded because of how close we are to Sydney. There is no other explanation.’’

Professor Andrew Bonney of the University of Wollongong’s Graduate School of Medicine described the changes as ‘‘a real missed opportunity’’.

‘‘It seems the government is focusing on distance as being the sole barrier,’’ Prof Bonney said.

‘‘There could be a whole lot of reasons which would make it difficult for people to access specialists,’’ he said.

‘‘Someone who suffers from depression, for example, might be low on money and hence not motivated to get to an appointment.

‘‘It is so much easier for them to see their GP who they trust, someone who can support them when they speak to a specialist,’’ Prof Boney said.

‘‘Adolescents with mental health illnesses might not front to a psychiatrist themselves. There are many, many reasons. This is a lost health equality opportunity.’’

Prof Bonney said he was hopefeul ‘‘they will have a think and revise it’’.

Cunningham MP Sharon Bird said the primary objective of telehealth was to provide access to specialists ‘‘when distance was a barrier to receiving specialist care - not areas where local specialists are available to provide services face to face’’.

The government had therefore changed its classification system to one which defines remoteness based on access to goods and services relative to population size, using the most current census data, she said.

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