The Australian Government’s $618.5 million telehealth scheme has been likened to the pink batts scandal, with fears medical professionals may be able to secure $6,000 grants for doing little more than making a Skype call.
The initiative, which seeks to encourage take-up of videoconferencing for consultations between medical specialists and regional Australians, went live on Friday July 1.
As well as covering telehealth sessions under Medicare, the initiative offers financial sweeteners to doctors aiding patients on-site and specialists conducting remote consultations.
These include a $6000 one-off “Telehealth On-Board Incentive" for making their first consultation during the 2011-2012 financial year, and payments of $60 a consultation thereafter.
The Department of Health expected to spend $12.3 million doling out the individual incentives over the next year to specialists and practitioners and to fund facilities for the scheme.
This would increase to $48.6 million by 2014-2015 as adoption increased, although the one-off on-board incentive would drop to $3,300 per professional in the same period.
However, precisely what would constitute a valid telehealth consultation for the purpose of receiving such grants has not yet been made clear by the Government.
A consultation conducted over a browser-based service such as Skype could easily meet the requirements necessary to earn the $6000.
One former Department of Health official said the lack of governance could make the telehealth initiative “Nicola Roxon’s Pink Batts scheme”.
The Government has been careful “not to mandate any particular technological solution” so as not to lock Australia’s health industry into one provider.
The “particular hardware or software methods for consultation should rest with the clinician,” the Government’s MBS web site states.
The Government has released a series of technical guidelines for hardware-based systems it hopes clinicians may adhere to, but has not set these guidelines as requirements for funding under the telehealth scheme
The only requirement to pick up a $6,000 grant is that the telehealth session is conducted over "audio-visual link."
Beyond those guidelines, the only standards medical professions can rely on are clinical standards under development by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).
The RAGCP approached the Government late last year to formulate clinical standards around telehealth but had been pushed back by legislative and financial obstacles until it was officially awarded the contract in May.
As a result of the delay, the college has undergone an “accelerated” process of developing the standards - which would usually take up to a year. The college will hold a public consultation next month ahead of ratifying a clinical standards document in October 2011.
Though touching on some technical aspects of using videoconferencing, the college was given no brief to mandate specific technologies or minimum technical standards.
These standards will also apply only to GPs and their staff - not the specialists on the other end of the line.
Funding will have been made available to medical professionals for at least three months before any governance is introduced.
A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Health and Ageing said the uptake of the MBS rebates and incentives “is being closely monitored by DoHA and Medicare Australia".
Clinicians would need to use services “capable of providing sufficient video quality” for the service being provided, adhering to security and privacy requirements under Australian law.
“Any schemes which would appear to abuse or rort the arrangements will be investigated,” she said.
The spokesperson said the incentive program was established under Medicare administrative guidelines rather than coded into legislation, enabling requirements to be “adjusted quickly” if rorts or loopholes are discovered.
Medical professionals have already been offered services from telehealth start-ups set up to take advantage of the Government sweeteners.
One such offer, made available from Queensland-based ConsultDirect Australia, a subsidiary of medical software firm Medilink Australia, offers a directory of specialists that GPs can connect with via video link to qualify for the scheme.
The ConsultDirect subsidiary was formed expressly to take advantage of the Government’s telehealth scheme. It asks doctors and medical professionals to join for $11 a week to use the service and satisfy the conditions for the one-off incentive and ongoing consultation rebates. GPs can also choose a pay-as-you-go system, paying ConsultDirect for every consultation.
The service is based on a free widget hosted by San Francisco-based Tokbox. ConsultDirect has integrated the Tokbox widget with a billing, scheduling and auditing system that allows for the video calls to be complemented by secure (encrypted) exchange of medical documents such as radiology scans, high-resolution photos and referral forms.
Dr Henry Glenie, a Cairns-based ear, nose and throat specialist and chief operating officer at Medilink Australia, told iTnews the application was developed over the last six months to meet the needs of those doctors and specialists that could not afford expensive telepresence systems, but wanted a superior solution that free services such as Skype.
“Doctors could go onto Skype,” to earn the Government handout, he said. “But then the patient has your email. On our system you have to register at each end.”
Dr Glenie said hardware-based videoconferencing and telepresence systems, at the other extreme, were “cumbersome to set up” and required medical professionals to leave their offices to take a call. “A lot of time is wasted, and sometimes patients don’t turn up.”
Some 200 medical professionals - mostly specialists - have registered to use the ConsultDirect service, he said.
Dr Glenie defended the webcam user experience on the Tokbox-based system, as it “could be complemented with a telephone call or high definition photos.
“What specialists want to do is get a feel for what the problem is,” he said. “I think it is workable.”
Dr Glenie said that to his knowledge, Tokbox runs the unencrypted video streams from a data centre somewhere in Asia, but is not recorded or stored by ConsultDirect.
Tokbox have given the company no assurances it is not storing the video data.
ConsultDirect's IT manager, who wished not to be named, said the Government’s technical guidelines only applied to hardware systems too expensive for most practices to consider and “haven’t really accommodated browser-based systems.”
The Department of Health and Ageing told iTnews that its initial assessment of ConsultDirect would be that its “services appear to be in order.”
Read on to find out why the Royal College of Practitioners is concerned about the lack of technical standards...