I was a big fan of the government’s National Broadband Network when it was first announced as part of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s election promise in 2007. I am not an engineer, so to be honest I wasn’t sure that the suggested architecture was the best option. I left that to the technical guys who understand those things. They seemed to agree that technically the model was a good one, even though it probably was the most expensive way to do it.
I was a simple doctor, who recognised the value of technology in improving the quality and efficiency of our healthcare system. I attended the big launch event in 2009 at the University of NSW that discussed the value of the new system to the various aspects of society. I even took part in the NBN launch in 2010, I was the doctor on the other end of the home telehealth service talking to the Prime Minister and selected dignitaries to demonstrate how the NBN could be used to deliver healthcare services straight into the home of older Australians.
My excitement was not because data could spew done the line at megabits per second, or that we could have crystal clear video at any location My excitement was because I believed that the government was producing a logical coherent strategy for collaboration across the various government sectors to combine and provide an integrated solution for healthcare that took advantage of the enhanced communications possibilities provided by the optic fibre in the ground to 93% of the Australian population, and the wireless and satellite services to the rest.
Today, much of that excitement has gone.
In 2010 the new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard announced that her government would make access to doctors easier by subsidising telehealth consultations. This was not a new idea. We had been talking about telehealth consultations for many years, and to be honest telehealth had actually moved on quite a bit from when we first started talking about the use of video conferencing as a way of extending the already strained healthcare workforce. However, it was a positive move, a small step forwards towards an integrated technology enabled healthcare system.
The Medicare items for telehealth consultations came into effect in July 2011. They were a bit disappointing, as they only subsidised specialist consultations, not the much more common, and often more important primary care or GP visits, and totally ignored allied health and nurses. My eternal optimism kept me positive. It’s a first step, and over the next couple of years, as they realise the benefit of linking people up with the technology they will continue to develop the reimbursement. The Department of Broadband Communications and Digital Economy (DBCDE) produced a great vision video which showed allied health workers and doctors speaking to their patients in their homes. This wasn’t what the new Medicare items paid for, but I assumed that the various departments must have spoken to each other, and this was a vision of where we were heading.
My excitement peaked on January 22 2012 when the minister for health and the minister for broadband were on stage together talking about how the NBN and modern medicine would work together to provide great new services to patients in their homes, and they would foster this with a $20 million grant to support such projects. It was nirvana to geek doctors like me, DBCDE and Department of Health and Ageing with the folk at NBN Co. working together to give Australia world class telehealth services which would make things better for us all.
Then reality set in. Within months of the launch of the well intentioned, but not perfectly designed telehealth consultation items, the folk at Medicare were working out how to make it a bit more difficult to bill them for such items. To be fair, their original incentives were a bit over the top. $6000 up front and a 50% bonus for using telehealth were pretty generous, and smart doctors decided that they were eligible for those benefits. Maybe some were a bit over zealous, but they met the requirements set out by the government, and they delivered a service to patients. Was it clinically useful. For most patients, it probably was. For some maybe not so useful, and for some it probably was not useful at all. However that is part of learning what works and what doesn’t in medicine. We learn that way during our early years as junior doctors, and hopefully there is a system in place to catch the things that slip through. The same occurs for early attempts at telehealth. They were not all going to be the most efficient and effective way to deliver care, because everyone involved was on a learning curve.
However, the folk at Medicare decided that it was to easy to use this new fangled video conferencing stuff, which in the consumer world many companies were offering for free, so they added some new clauses. The doctor and the patient had to be more than 15 kms away from each other, and the payments became staggered. Essentially it added a couple of new steps for the doctor to go through to use telehealth with their patients. We all know that doctors have lots of spare time, and the one thing they love is extra paper work, so it really shouldn’t be a problem. It seems some doctors were deemed to have abused the system, they provided the service to patients who should have been able to go and visit the specialist in person. Sitting in a waiting room full of sick people, and getting your children to take the day off work to take you to the specialist visit is definitely better than making the telehealth service available to all Australians.
Then it got worse. Come the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook on 21 October 2012 there were a slew of new restrictions added to the telehealth reimbursement from Medicare. First only Australians deemed to be remote, that is not live in major cities and outer metropolitan areas were now eligible. The problem is that is not where most Australians live, so the bulk of the Australian population cannot access these services. Even worse, those areas that were eligible were actually the least likely to be able to use the service at present, because the connectivity required to deliver the service doesn’t exist in those areas. Just in case that wasn’t enough disincentive to stop the greedy doctors from billing the code, since their potential “customers” had now been decreased by a very significant percentage, they had to justify the new equipment, the required training, the required support services, and the associated disturbance to their workflow for the relatively rare rural patient who needs their service.
The net effect according to the budget papers is a saving of $134 million over 4 years. There was not a lot of detail on how that saving is calculated, but the only way you can save money in Medicare is to not have doctors bill for the service. Well of course they won’t bill the telehealth consultation, it is too much work for too little return for them. So if the patient still wants to see a doctor, and remember in this case it is for a specialist consultation deemed to be necessary by their GP, they will just have to find a way to get to their practice. That the doctor can be reimbursed for, so Medicare still pays the doctor to deliver the service, just with a different billing code. The patient has to get there, spend a big chunk of their day, and probably that of a family member, because visiting a specialist is not something you want to do alone, to get there. Hopefully by then they are not too stressed out by the travel and associated anguish to spend some quality time with the doctor, and get back home. Assuming they get to do this in a reasonable time, there may not be any detrimental effect on their health. It may be a bit too hard, so they will postpone it, in the knowledge that if things get bad enough they can call an ambulance and go to the local hospital, who will arrange for a specialist to see them in the emergency department. That is probably a much better use of the budget money, and everyone enjoys a ride in an ambulance and a couple of days in a hospital bed.
In the mean time the roll out of the National Broadband Network continues unabated. The promise of broadband delivered video consultations with your healthcare workers remains a major benefit for the NBN. As long as you can pay for that service out of your pocket, and you can find a doctor who provides it then that probably still makes sense. Spending government money to lay the fibre to allow this to happen, and then saving the money you would spend to actually deliver a service over the fibre seems to make sense to some.
So my initial excitement that the government had a coordinated plan for the integration of technology into healthcare and other sectors of society has been significantly dampened. We seem to have two government departments at odds with each other about the value of telehealth. We have some innovation happening around the edges, but most of them have moved on to new things, because health and broadband, despite its promise doesn’t make business sense to anyone. The folk at NBN Co. tell us that new applications running on the network will revolutionise healthcare, and education, and many other things. However as many of these things are social benefits funded through our tax dollars through the government, it seems there has been a significant effort by the relevant departments to slow down its uptake, just in case people decide they like it and want to use it.
I still believe telehealth is a tool with great potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our healthcare system. It has been shown to work when it is allowed to. However if it is not allowed to grow, if clinicians are not allowed to experiment to work out how to best use it, and if extra paper work is thrown in front of clinicians who want to use it, then it will fail. It will be another expensive failure, not because the technology doesn’t work, but because we have turned it into yet another silo in our already highly fragmented healthcare system. The NBN, the great communications tool which has the potential to integrate so much cannot defeat active disincentives which entrench policy that supports the fragmentation.
Yet another silo is not what healthcare needs, but if telehealth is only reimbursed for a small fraction of the community, only in certain circumstances, and only with certain providers, it becomes a very small not sustainable silo. At the same time we will invest billions to connect the whole nation to a network that has the potential to unite us, but not health, and probably not education, and the list goes on. We will have the world’s best network of non-connected silos in the world.
That is why I am no longer very excited by the National Broadband Network.