Phone consultations with GPs in NSW and Victoria climbed from zero to more than 138,000 per week during Covid-19, according to the first report from a Digital Health CRC-funded project with Macquarie University, Outcome Health, Gippsland, Eastern Melbourne and South Eastern Melbourne PHNs, and the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia Quality Assurance Programs, with participation from Central and Eastern Sydney and South Western Sydney PHNs.

The report also showed that during the height of Victoria’s second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in August, phone consultations exceeded face to face consultations for the first time.

In Victoria, patients used 95,357 phone consultations per week to talk to a GP between January and September 2020. In NSW it was 45,850 per week.

In Victoria, 95.7 per cent of 2019 GP consultations were face-to-face – but that dropped to 57.7 per cent in 2020. In NSW,  97.3 per cent of 2019 GP consultations were face-to-face dropping to 70 per cent in 2020.

The researchers have urged the government to extend the use of Medical Benefits Scheme (MBS) Telehealth Service item numbers to support patients and GPs beyond the current 31 March 2021 cut-off.

“The widespread uptake of telehealth services provides clear justification for long-term support from the MBS to help cover the cost of patients consulting a GP by phone or video,” said lead researcher Professor Andrew Georgiou.

Telehealth services support people to limit unnecessary travel, reducing the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious conditions such as influenza. Telehealth is also convenient for people in rural and remote regions.

Video consultations also rose but were less popular than phone consultations. The researchers suggested this could point to a shortfall in the available technology or technical knowledge required. In Victoria 2,540 video consultations were conducted per week during 2020, compared to 38 per week on 2019. In NSW the figure was 805 per week in 2020 compared to four per week the previous year.

The study covers nearly 30 per cent of the Australian population, including urban and rural/remote regions from approximately 800 general practices (454 from Victoria and 346 from NSW).

The participating Primary Health Networks (PHNs) included two urban (Eastern Melbourne and South Eastern Melbourne) and a predominantly rural (Gippsland) PHN from Victoria, and in NSW, Central and Eastern Sydney (urban) and South Western Sydney (incorporating rural areas Wingello to Bundanoon) PHNs.