Whether you live in a remote area that's too far from the nearest specialist, or you're simply too sick to face the doctor's waiting room, there's a wide range of websites, apps and services that give you online access to medical care.
'Telehealth' or 'e-health' allows for a medical consultation to take place via video conferencing or audio over the internet. Telehealth services can include diagnosis, treatment and preventive healthcare.
Not all doctor/patient consults lend themselves to a virtual experience, particularly those where an examination or test is needed on the spot. However, one e-health provider we spoke to claims that up to 80% of GP presentations can be managed online – particularly for health issues such as common coughs and colds, weight loss, sexual health and emotional wellbeing. It's also possible to request specialist referrals, prescription repeats and medical certificates via email or fax after an initial online (or real-life) consultation.
All the e-health websites we looked at state clearly that they aren't for medical emergencies.
Is there a Medicare rebate for online consultations?
Medicare rebates for telehealth are available to eligible patients for specialist consultations only (not GP appointments).
An eligible patient is:
- not an admitted patient; and
- eligible for Medicare rebates; and
- located in an eligible geographical area and more than 15km from the specialist at the time of consultation.
Telehealth-eligible areas are outside of metropolitan areas, in Remoteness Area classifications 2–5 (under the Australian Standard Geographic Classification).
Additionally, telehealth MBS items for specialist consultations may be available for patients at an eligible residential aged care facility or an eligible Aboriginal medical service, irrespective of location.
What if I don't live in a remote area?
So why isn't telehealth covered by Medicare more broadly? According to the Federal Department of Health there are significant considerations associated with expansion of telehealth services under Medicare, including health workforce measures in regional and rural areas and supporting the medical profession's position that face-to-face consultations are the preferred option.
And the service is not likely to see more rebates anytime soon as all proposals for expansion of Medicare would need to be considered by the Medical Services Advisory Committee (MSAC) and additional funding would need to be considered through normal budget processes. According to the department, at this time there are no applications to expand the service to include GPs as well as specialists.
Finding online consultation services
If you're still keen on the convenience of an online consult, even at a cost, anyone with a Medicare card can use a telehealth facility if they have decent internet support and equipment. While you can contact your GP to see if they offer a service directly, there are also online-only companies that offer consultations to all Australians.
GP2U offers online consults with GPs for diagnosis, specialist referrals, prescriptions and medical certificates. The service also offers prescriptions faxed to the nearest chemist or a delivery service.
Cost: Registration is free and requires a Medicare card, contact number and email address. Consultation prices are set by individual GPs and are based on the length of appointment. Average consultation length is 15 minutes and typically costs $50–69.
Readycare offers video and phone consults with Australian-based GPs 24/7 and is designed to supplement a patient's regular GP. The service provides medical consults and advice, medical certificates and prescriptions if needed.
Doctors on Demand provides video conferencing 24/7 for medical consultations, prescriptions and medical certificates. An app is available for IOS and Android.
Cost: Consults start at $60
Things to look out for if you use an online consultation
- The providers generally do not guarantee that a video consultation is the appropriate course of treatment for your particular healthcare problem, as some patients will need an examination in person.
- You'll need decent internet coverage to be able to use these services. Be sure to check the provider's policies on refunds when it comes to technology failures and problems with connections.
Other online health assistance
If you're not quite ready for a virtual doctor's appointment there are still plenty of apps and websites to help you get ahead before you get into the waiting room queue.
The government-supported website Health Direct contains a wealth of information on health topics from pregnancy and ageing right through to general health. It also provides in-depth information on medicines and services.
If you're feeling off-colour, the site has a symptom checker which allows users to be virtually triaged according to the symptoms they are experiencing. The program collects basic data such as age, gender and postcode before asking a series of detailed questions about symptoms, then provides a recommendation to see a GP or go to a hospital. It records your answers and gives you a reference number so when you do see a health practitioner they can call in to review the list of symptoms recorded by the tracker.
The site lets you search for GPs, hospitals, dentists and allied health practitioners local to the postcode that you've entered.
Health Direct also has a 24-hour phone service (1800 022 222) staffed by registered nurses who can connect you to an after-hours GP helpline if needed.
There's also a separate phone line for pregnancy, birth and baby advice (1800 882 436).
Waiting times at the doctor's surgery or hospital can sometimes stretch to hours. But these handy sites and apps can help you dodge the worst of the waiting room blues.
- In NSW, www.emergencywait.health.nsw.gov.au will show the waiting times for emergency departments for all major hospitals.
- In WA, real-time information is available on health.wa.gov.au for all public hospitals in the state.
- In the ACT, health.act.gov.au can give you up-to-date information on current waiting times, projected waiting times for the next two hours and data on overall patient traffic in emergency departments.
- In SA, sahealth.sa.gov.au gives updates every 30 minutes on the number of patients in the emergency and inpatient areas of the state's major public hospitals.
- In Victoria you can't access live data but performance.health.vic.gov.au has estimated waiting times for major hospitals.
- In Queensland, Tasmania and the NT you'll be relying on good fortune rather than data to dodge the long wait, as there is little live information available, though you can check with the relevant health department in that state for further information.
Most of us have a preferred GP and when it's not an emergency we're happy to wait a few days until they have an available slot. But what about when we can't wait a day or two? Online booking services let you view the available appointments in your chosen area in real time and make a booking ASAP.
While these sorts of booking services can be convenient, it pays to be wary about sharing your information. In 2018 it emerged that one of these providers, HealthEngine, had shared users' information with personal injury law firms and other third parties. For this reason it's best to take care in what you reveal when you book your appointment, and only share what is strictly necessary to make the booking. And, of course, always read the terms and conditions before you agree to them.
The Health Engine website and app (iOS/Android) let you view in real time the available appointments with participating GPs, dentists, physios and more, and then make a booking.
Cost: The service is free, but it does send direct marketing communications including mail, telephone calls, SMS or email to customers who register for the service which you can choose to opt-out.
Ozdocsonline lets patients ask participating GPs for online appointment bookings, prescriptions, pathology results, referrals and consultations.
Cost: The service isn't covered by Medicare but the site claims the average cost for requests is $20.
DocBook is another website that lets patients browse practices, search by location and make an appointment with a GP. The service is available in NSW, Victoria, WA, SA and Queensland, though the choice of participating surgeries is fairly limited.
You've woken up on a workday feeling dreadful and call in sick, but you'll need to produce a medical certificate. The last thing you feel like doing is leaving the couch in search of a doctor to write you a certificate. Turns out there are sites that can help you with that too.
Dr Sicknote will set you up with a Skype consultation with a GP to discuss the issuing of a medical certificate or a referral to a specialist. If a medical certificate is required it will be emailed after the online consult by midnight that night.
Cost : $19.99 and there's no Medicare rebate option. The service offers a refund if a medical certificate cannot be issued for any reason or if the certificate is not dispatched by midnight on the day of the consult.
Home Doctor Service
The National Home Doctor Service (13SICK) provides urgent after-hours medical care to patients at home in most capital cities. The service offers bulk billing for all Medicare users and Gold DVA cardholders.
You can book via phone (13 74 25) or via the app (iOS/Android).