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Accessing health treatments during social distancing

accessing health services

With the Government implementing social distancing measures and forcing some business sectors to close, under the current Stage 3 restrictions,[1] Aussies may be wondering what types of healthcare they can still access. The good news is that many health services are still open and accessible, whether that be face to face or through the assistance of technology, with health professionals adhering to stringent hygiene and safety measures. But how do Aussies know if their health provider has changed their services?

Health expert at online comparison service comparethemarket.com.au, Anthony Fleming, says: “Aussies should refer to guides on the Department of Health website, visit their regular health professional’s websites and subscribe to their communications, or speak to their health funds to find out whether the service they need is still operating normally. There are guidelines in place for health services to minimise the risk of COVID-19 presenting at their clinics, and Aussies should feel reassured that many providers are implementing these and their own measures.

“In addition, many health funds have now included telehealth services in some extras policies so that members can claim on allied health treatments delivered through this method. In the coming weeks, health funds may also provide details on how members can receive incentives as a result of some treatments not being available. For eligible Medicare card holders, the Government has expanded Medicare rebates to include telehealth services.[2] This means some medical services are offering telehealth services, for areas such as chronic disease management and counselling for pregnancy support,[3] or home visits for ‘at risk’ patients.[4]”

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Comparethemarket.com.au has compiled a guide on some of the latest changes to a range of major health services and explains which categories you can claim on. “Some of the costs of many popular health services could be claimed through private health insurance. Depending on your level of cover, an extras policy can help Aussies pay for important health services – such as physiotherapy, dental, optical, and chiropractic treatments, which are the most common services people use their extras for[5] – with rebates ranging from up to $350-950 each year for certain insurers.[6] To help save on health insurance, Aussies can use free platforms such as comparethemarket.com.au to compare the services and benefits within a range of hospital and extras combined or standalone policies, to find one that works for their budget or lifestyle.”

Comparethemarket.com.au reveals how you can access common health services during COVID-19 shutdowns and social distancing restrictions:

1. Doctor consultations

Patients are currently able to leave the house to access doctor appointments, and face-to-face consultations are still available. Those who aren’t comfortable or are unable to go to a doctor can access Medicare-subsidised telehealth appointments with their GP.[7] The Government has temporarily added a number of bulk-billing items to help medical professionals deliver telehealth services to these people.[8]

2. Prescriptions

Aussies are allowed to leave home to visit a pharmacy, but some vulnerable people and those self-isolating may need alternative options. The Government has created the Home Medicines Service program to help patients access their Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme medicine via home delivery.[9] Online chemists such as Chemist Warehouse[10] and Pharmacy Direct[11] offer delivery services through their web stores – including for prescription medicines, after patients send their original prescription in the mail. The Government is also fast-tracking the implementation of electronic prescriptions (ePrescribing) to be ready in the next eight weeks: a GP will be able to create and share this with their patient who will then be able to electronically provide it to their pharmacy for home delivery.[12]

3. Dentistry

Dental clinics are allowed to stay open for essential treatment, with Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) advising that stopping urgent dental care would place a burden on primary medical care and emergency services.[13] The Australian Dental Association (ADA) designed a tiered system for restrictions within dental practices during COVID-19. While dental practices were in Level 3 Restrictions in March, which included the deferral of all routine examinations and dental treatments – only patients who had urgent concerns would be treated[14] – the Government has agreed to the ADA’s recommendation to downgrade to Level 2 Restrictions. This sees a broader range of treatments such as fitting dentures, braces and basic fillings recommence from 27 April.[15] Health funds have confirmed they will continue to provide cover for emergency dental services during this time, such as a root canal.[16] Dental clinics should have already enforced strict hygiene measures, such as disinfecting touched surfaces regularly, providing hand sanitiser to patients upon arrival, and ensuring social distancing guidelines are followed.[17] Some practices have also removed unnecessary items from waiting rooms or waived cancellation fees for patients who show flu-like symptoms and can’t turn up to their appointments.[18]

4.  Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy clinics are permitted to remain open. The Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) announced that a number of health benefits for one-on-one physiotherapy teleconsultations to patients who meet specific criteria, such as a GP referral.[19] For those who can receive consults remotely, there is a new app called PhysiTrack, which provides video appointments with physiotherapists as well as fully narrated exercise videos for exercise prescriptions.[20] Some clinics are offering services ranging from home visits for ‘at risk’ patients at no additional charge, to sending therabands, spikey balls and foam rollers to patients to complete their programs. Further, the APA is advocating for acute musculoskeletal and soft tissue injuries to be temporarily treated by physiotherapy clinics instead of emergency departments, to minimise demand on hospitals.[21]

5. Optometry

Some optometry clinics have chosen to close completely, while others remain open but have introduced new preventative measures.Optometry Australia has advised clinics to ensure vigilance when it comes to coronavirus preventative measures if they continue to see patients.[22] For instance, medical research centre Lion Eye Institute and optical retail chain Specsavers are open on an appointment-only basis, but are asking all non-urgent patients to reschedule.[23] For those who don’t require emergency care, some service providers such as online eyewear store VisionDirect are offering online eye tests by asking customers to read letters using their computer.[24]

6. Chiropractic

As an allied health service, chiropractors can still operate under the Government restrictions. The Chiropractic Board of Australia is encouraging all practitioners to be proactive in assessing risk and delivering safe care to patients.[25] This means that many clinics remain open, with increased hygiene practices and social distancing measures, such as Melbourne chiropractic Wellbeing 365, which is staggering patient appointments, increasing ventilation in spaces, and wiping down EFTPOS machines between payments.[26] Other practices that remain open, such as Adelaide Family Chiropractic, have stipulated no cash payments, no pens to sign paper or receipts, and have made hand sanitiser available to all patients.[27] Similar to physiotherapists, chiropractors such as Wellbeing 365[28] and Health Space[29] are offering telehealth chiropractic appointments so patients can still access exercise and rehabilitation programs and postural advice.

7. Psychology

Aussies can still access psychology services through telehealth services amid heightened social distancing restrictions. The Australian Psychological Society were involved in lobbying efforts to ensure consumers could access mental health services via telehealth through their health funds.[30] Private insurers have agreed to provide benefits for one-on-one psychology teleconsultations where the patient is undergoing an existing course of treatment for the past six months or new patients when recommended by their GP.[31] Australian Unity[32] and NIB are each offering a six-week phone-based program for mental health support called MindStep, which uses evidence-based cognitive behavioural therapy delivered by specially trained mental health coaches.[33] Meanwhile, mental health centres such as Headspace have closed their doors, but are offering online support through chat groups, online communities, and interactive resources as well as direct one-on-one support with professionals.[34] Aussies can also use apps such as The Black Dog Institute’s Black Dog Snapshot, which allows users to log their mental wellbeing each day, with the app providing feedback and resources for mental wellbeing and how to seek help.[35]

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[1] Victoria Government, https://www.vic.gov.au/coronavirus-covid-19-restrictions-victoria and WA Government, https://www.wa.gov.au/organisation/department-of-the-premier-and-cabinet/covid-19-coronavirus-latest-updates

[2] Australian Department of Health, https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/covid-19-whole-of-population-telehealth-for-patients-general-practice-primary-care-and-other-medical-services

[3] Services Australia, https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/organisations/health-professionals/news/new-mbs-telehealth-items-coronavirus

[4] Health Direct, Australian Department of Health https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/coronavirus-covid-19-groups-at-higher-risk-faqs#who

[5] APRA, 2020, https://www.apra.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-02/Quarterly%20private%20health%20insurance%20statistics%20December%202019.pdf

[6] Comparethemarket.com.au analysed four private health policies: BupaAustralian UnityHIFMedibank.

[7] Australian Health Direct https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/coronavirus-covid-19-seeing-a-doctor-getting-tested-faqs

[8] Australian Government Department of Health https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-advice-for-the-health-and-aged-care-sector#public-health-unit-guidelines

[9] Pharmacy Programs Administrator https://www.ppaonline.com.au/programs/covid-19-home-medicine-service

[10] Chemist Warehouse https://www.chemistwarehouse.com.au/prescriptions

[11] Pharmacy Direct https://www.pharmacydirect.com.au/purchasing-prescription-medication-online

[12] Australian Department of Health, https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2020/03/covid-19-national-health-plan-primary-care-fast-track-electronic-prescribing_0.pdf

[13] Australian Department of Health, https://www.health.gov.au/news/australian-health-protection-principal-committee-ahppc-advice-to-national-cabinet-on-25-march-2020

[14] Australian Dental Association, https://www.ada.org.au/Campaign/COVID-19/Managing-COVID-19/Practice-Resources/Dental-restriction-Levels/ADA-dental-restriction-levels-in-COVID-19-Publishe.aspx

[15] Prime Minister of Australia, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/update-coronavirus-measures-210420 and ADA, https://www.ada.org.au/News-Media/News-and-Release/Latest-News/The-Prime-Minister-has-announced-a-move-back-to-Le

[16] Private Healthcare Australia, 2020, https://www.privatehealthcareaustralia.org.au/health-funds-committed-to-providing-financial-relief-for-members-impacted-by-covid-19/

[17] Pacific Smiles Group Australia, http://www.pacificsmilesgroup.com.au/pacific-smiles-response-to-covid-19/

[18] Katoomba Dental, https://www.katoombadental.com.au/Services/Katoomba-COVID-19-Update-Policy/24183

[19] Australian Physiotherapy Association, https://australian.physio/media/australian-health-funds-announce-tele-physiotherapy-consultations

[20] Physitrack, https://www.physitrack.com/telehealth

[21] Australian Physiotherapy Association, https://australian.physio/apa-advocacy-during-covid-19

[22] Optometry Australia, https://www.optometry.org.au/practice-professional-support/coronavirus-covid-19-what-optometrists-need-to-know/

[23] Lion Eye Institute, https://www.lei.org.au/covid-19/ and Specsavers Australia https://www.specsavers.com.au/covid19/faqs

[24] Vision Direct, https://www.visiondirect.com.au/buying-guide/onlineeyetest

[25] Chiropractic Board of Australia, https://www.chiropracticboard.gov.au/News/2020-03-13-COVID19.aspx

[26] Wellbeing 365, https://wellbeing365.com.au/are-chiropractors-open-during-covid-19-corona-virus-lockdown/

[27] Adelaide Family Chiropractic, https://www.adelaidefamilychiro.com/blog/coronavirus-what-we-are-doing-for-you

[28] Wellbeing 365, https://wellbeing365.com.au/telehealth-chiropractic/

[29] Health Space, https://healthspaceclinics.com.au/services/telehealth-consultations

[30] Australian Psychological Society, https://www.psychology.org.au/About-Us/news-and-media/Media-releases/2020/Psychologists-welcome-health-fund-telehealth-suppo

[31] Australian Psychological Society, https://www.psychology.org.au/About-Us/news-and-media/Media-releases/2020/Psychologists-welcome-health-fund-telehealth-suppo

[32] Australian Unity, https://www.australianunity.com.au/health-insurance/programs/covid-19

NIB https://www.nib.com.au/health-information/going-to-hospital/health-management-programs

[33] Remedy Healthcare, MindStep, https://www.remedyhealthcare.com.au/mental-health/

[34] Headspace, https://headspace.org.au/covid-19/

[35] Black Dog Institute, http://digitaldog.org.au/programs/blackdogsnapshot/


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