Telstra telehealth scheme a rival to all GPs: AMA

The AMA has accused Telstra of setting up in competition with every GP in the country following the launch of its new telehealth system.

ReadyCare, which was rolled out last week, allows members of the public to consult a GP by making a video or telephone call to a 1800 number for a fee of $69 plus GST.

There are no Medicare rebates for the service at present.

The 24/7 service is staffed by doctors taking calls in a dedicated telehealth centre in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria.

Its aim was to improve access to GPs, Telstra said, adding that it wanted to work with local GPs and maintain continuity of care.

The AMA has publicly opposed the scheme since it was first announced in October last year, with president Associate Professor Brian Owler labelling it a "commercial solution dressed up as a health solution".

Dr Brian Morton, chair of the AMA’s Council of General Practice, told Australian Doctor that the association's view had not changed.

“Our assessment of the Tesltra ReadyCare model is that it is simply setting up an online and telephone-based general practice. We think it fragments care and it doesn’t support continuity of care,” Dr Morton said.

“It’s actually a telephone practice which is in competition with every single other general practice in Australia. If Telstra’s e-health program was aimed at every general practice, then the AMA would have a totally different attitude to it. But it’s not.”

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However, the RACGP has taken a more pragmatic approach to the possible threat of ReadyCare to regular general practice, according to its president, Dr Frank Jones.

“What Telstra told us to date is that they will be complementing regular GP services; they have assured us about that, and that they understand that the regular GP is at the central core nature of care,” Dr Jones said.

“There are areas within the health system that are currently inadequately covered 24/7. I’m speaking particularly of rural and remote areas and sometimes even in urban areas with nursing homes and places like that.”

GPs working for ReadyCare will be able to initiate prescriptions as well as provide repeats for up to a month's supply in most circumstances, although some medications, including Schedule 8 drugs and benzodiazepines, will not be prescribed.

And despite their different thinking on the value of the new telehealth service, both the AMA and RACGP are united in their concern over the ability of ReadyCare GPs to initiate scripts.

“It’s not supporting quality care,” Dr Morton said.

“It isn’t in the patient’s best interest to get a month’s supply of prescriptions without being assessed by their regular GP.”

Dr Jones added: “I think giving scripts for a month and things like that is not entirely appropriate because that does take away the co-ordination of care.

“There are risks with this model, and I think that it’s important to make sure that we understand those. There is a risk of fragmentation of care.”

ReadyCare has downplayed the potential risks associated with prescribing, with a spokesperson saying reports from each teleconsult will be sent via email to the patient's regular GP. 

Telstra has indicated that, in the long term, it wants ReadyCare to be integrated directly into general practices around Australia.