What is Telehealth? The Basics and Benefits


The term ‘telehealth’ refers to much more than healthcare consultations done over the phone. In fact, a telehealth consultation can be one of a whole range of practices that happen outside the clinic with the help of digital technology. 


Alongside phone consultations, telehealth can also include talking with a patient via Skype, FaceTime or another online video tool. The term also applies to taking pre-payments when a patient books their appointment and to collecting any pre-consultation notes that help you and your patient prepare for a consultation. 


Here are answers to some of the most common questions about how telehealth operates and the benefits it offers patients and practitioners.

How do patients book a telehealth appointment?

Patients don’t need to use one particular system to set up a telehealth consultation. They can book over the phone or via an online tool, depending on the systems your clinic uses. 


The key difference when booking a telehealth consultation is that patients will need to provide the right details for their clinician to contact them at the appointed time. This could be their phone number, Skype handle or FaceTime details, depending on the telehealth tool their clinician has decided to use. 


Of course, each healthcare practice can set its own rules and systems for telehealth consultations, such as the length of each consultation, or whether the clinician will call a patient back if they can’t be contacted at the time of their appointment. 

Which video tools can be used for telehealth consultations? 

Clinicians may choose to use a video tool like Skype, FaceTime or Zoom to enhance their telehealth consultations. To set this up, your practice will need processes in place to gather the relevant patient details ahead of the appointment. 


If using an online meeting tool like Zoom, your practice booking system will also need to send the details your patient needs to log in to your virtual meeting room.


Alternatively, your practice may choose to use a dedicated video tool created specifically for telehealth consultations. 

What types of consultations work best with telehealth tools?

While there are many instances when a telehealth consultation may not be enough to gather all the information a clinician needs, there are some health issues that can be managed effectively without an in-person consultation. These could include:  

  • working with patients to create a mental health care plan 
  • providing a referral to see a specialist clinician 
  • creating a repeat prescription
  • working with a patient who is managing a chronic health condition that you are already familiar with. 

How can clinicians check whether telehealth is the right choice for a consultation?

Finding out why your patient is booking their appointment ahead of time will help you decide whether a telehealth consultation is the best choice. 


To do this, it’s worth setting up a booking system that allows patients to share detailed information about their concerns when they make their appointment. This kind of information may also be useful when deciding on the length of appointment required—for example, when a patient books in to discuss multiple health issues. 

Are there privacy concerns around telehealth consultations?

Before starting to use a telehealth tool to run consultations, it’s worth taking steps to protect your privacy as a clinician, and to consider your patients’ privacy as well. 


For phone consultations, you may decide to use your own mobile phone but make your number private, so your details aren’t visible to patients. Alternatively, you may decide to buy a dedicated phone for telehealth consultations that is only able to make calls (not receive them). This will ensure patients are still only able to contact you by making a booking through your clinic. 


When conducting telehealth consultations using a video tool like Skype or FaceTime, you will need to choose an area of your workspace that you are comfortable being visible to your patients. As with phone consultations, you may also choose to set up a dedicated account that is only used for video consultations, or to purchase an online video tool built specifically for telehealth needs. This is another way to ensure your privacy—and that of your patients—is completely protected.

How are prescriptions provided using telehealth?

To run fully effective telehealth consultations, your practice will need a system that can manage any prescriptions patients require. Some practitioners choose to print and mail prescriptions themselves, or set up a process where this is managed through their practice. Others use a combination of email, fax and printed prescriptions to get the right information to a patient’s pharmacist, particularly in cases when prescriptions are required in a short time. 

How are payments and Medicare rebates handled for telehealth consultations?

As of April 2020, Australian telehealth consultations are covered by the government’s Medicare rebate. These rebates are applied in the same way as rebates for in-person consultations. 


Some practices use online tools that have a built-in capacity to take payments for telehealth consultations when the patient makes their booking, and to provide Medicare rebates direct to the patient’s bank account.  


The Australian Government has also put new rules in place that require clinicians to bulk bill telehealth consultations for Commonwealth concession card holders, children under 16 and for people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. This category includes people who are over 70 years of age, those with chronic health conditions, and those who are immune compromised. 

What are the benefits of telehealth consultations? 

The option to attend a healthcare appointment over the phone or via online video offers benefits for a wide range of people, including: 

  • People living in rural, regional and remote areas where access to healthcare involves travelling long distances.
  • People living with mobility issues or disabilities that make travelling to their local clinic challenging.
  • Parents and carers who are unable to attend in-person appointments without arranging additional care.
  • People with inflexible work schedules, such as emergency service workers, shift workers, and others who may find it difficult to attend an in-person consultation during normal business hours.
  • Those who are booking appointments to discuss straightforward issues, such as requesting repeat prescriptions or referrals to specialist practitioners. 

Are telehealth consultations becoming more common? 

While the option to run telehealth consultations has existed for some time and provided benefits to a range of different patient groups, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an urgent need for clinicians around Australia to increase their capacity to provide telehealth consultations to many more people. Clinicians and their teams have had to move fast, quickly becoming familiar with a range of new tools and systems, to continue serving their patient communities. 


All this means that telehealth has quickly gone from a relatively uncommon option used by a small number of clinics to an option offered by many healthcare practitioners around the country. Patients are also adapting to this new reality, learning that telehealth consultations are now an option and how to make the most of this new way to manage their health.  


Add to all this the fact that Medicare rebates now apply to these kinds of consultations, along with recent improvements in online video tools, and we can see a future in which telehealth consultations become a normal part of providing healthcare.



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