Telehealth here to stay as claims steady
Australians embraced digital healthcare during COVID-19 lockdowns, and while the demand for telehealth remains steady, digital healthcare is expected to be part of the “new normal” meeting consumers’ changing preferences.
Telehealth claims jumped to almost 4,000 in the first month of Bupa paying for services before peaking in May 2020 and remaining steady throughout much of the year as the states have moved in and out of various COVID-19 restrictions.
Emily Amos, Bupa Health Insurance Managing Director, said that while the technology to enable digital delivery of health services from everything such as physiotherapy and telehealth had been around for several years, it took a global pandemic to move it into the mainstream.
The pandemic forced us to look differently at how we recieve and deliver healthcare and adapt quickly to the changing situation. We estimate that it sped up digital adoption in healthcare by at least a decade both in Australia and around the globe.
“As we’re seeing in Victoria at the moment, thanks to the pace of adoption last year, the healthcare industry will be able to quickly move back to prioritising telehealth and other digital solutions while they’re unable to see some patients in person.”
Bupa’s latest whitepaper How the pandemic helped healthcare go digital brings together data and insights around take up of telehealth, the impact COVID-19 has had on the digitalisation of healthcare and the outlook for telehealth services in the future.
Ms Amos welcomed the federal government’s extension of telehealth MBS funding until December 2021 and encouraged the government to consider permanent support for the services.
“It’s clear that Australians see value in receiving some of their healthcare delivered digitally, and as recent events have shown, it’s critical that providers have the flexibility to be able to scale up their digital offerings as we continue to adapt to a state of COVID-normal,” Ms Amos said.
“While telehealth claims have seen a drop since the peak of lockdowns in 2020, both our data and MBS data shows there is still a very strong market for healthcare such as psychology, physiotherapy and dietetics to be delivered virtually. We expect telehealth will continue to play an important role in how healthcare is delivered, not just within the current situation but well into the future.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Victorians were the highest adopters of digital health services while facing the most prolonged lockdowns.
“The benefits telehealth provides for regional, rural and remote Australians, those with underlying illnesses or vulnerabilities and even just people who are lead busy lives, including young people, means it is here to stay and demand will continue to grow as the technology and experience improves,”
In the 12 months since telehealth was introduced:
- Psychology was the most common telehealth claim among Bupa customers accounting for a third of overall claims.
- For those aged 50 and above, physiotherapy was by far the most common claim accounting for almost half (47%) of total claims in this age group
- Speech therapy (15 percent of total claims) and dietetics (13 percent of total claims) were also popular.
- Women made more than two-thirds (68%) of the total claims.
“We saw physio services take off as an early adopter of telehealth in April, but as the pandemic rolled on and the mental health impacts began to gain more attention, psychology quickly became the most common claim.
“The use of telehealth varied widely by the age, location and demographics of our customers. This showed that it really is an individual choice for a patient and their practitioner to determine what suits their own healthcare needs best rather than a one-size-fits all,” Ms Amos said.
Ms Amos said that while telehealth wasn’t the right choice in every patient and healthcare provider situation, and wouldn’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions, there are clearly situations where it may provide an important ongoing role in many Australians’ individual healthcare plans.
“As trends towards digitalisation continue and telehealth becomes more embedded in our healthcare system, clinicians and designers of digital health software and hardware will need to collaborate quickly to keep pace with the experiences patients now expect.”
Bupa was the first health insurer to fund ancillary services such as physiotherapy, psychology and occupational therapy via telehealth in 2020 as a result of the impacts of COVID-19, and to commit to ongoing funding based on the popularity.
Download the whitepaper: How the pandemic helped healthcare go digital.