“We think it would be much better if patients whose main concern is coronavirus, whether they’re really at risk or not, can access a consultation over the phone,” he said.
Former prime minister and Beyond Blue chair Julia Gillard revealed on Wednesday her organisation had experienced a 200 per cent rise in requests for help in just a week, as the government announced increasingly harsh measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Lifeline is receiving 2,500 calls a day, with 23 per cent of those taken over the weekend related to the coronavirus.
Dr Nespolon said it was not sustainable for GPs – who count mental health as the number one reason patients come to see them – to spend their days reassuring anxious Australians without being paid.
“We are not a free service,” he said.
Some medical practices in Sydney and Melbourne are refusing to provide remote consultations, saying they are not “set up to do it”.
Dr Nespolon said “99 per cent” of GPs were not set up to deliver telehealth – which requires specific software – while many elderly patients did not have the required laptop and webcam or technical knowledge.
“For an initial screening, a telephone would seem to be the best piece of equipment,” he said.
Ms Gillard, who is in self-isolation in London after coming into contact with the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who tested positive for the virus – said in a video message posted to Twitter that it was important to “listen to and abide by all of the government’s public health messages”.
“We all need to stay connected and together we’re going to get through this,” she said.
Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen said the government’s Medicare rebates for telehealth should be “much broader”.
“Everything should be covered during this crisis by a telehealth rebate,” Mr Bowen told the ABC on Wednesday.
The president of the Australian Medical Association’s Western Australia division, Andrew Miller, said doctors were concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on people’s mental health, especially those who had returned from overseas and were not able to see their practitioner in person for 14 days.
A spokesman for health minister Greg Hunt said the government was “continually looking at the best ways to suppoty health practitioners and patients at this time”.
Mr Hunt on Tuesday announced an expanded list of practitioners who could provide Medicare-funded telehealth to vulnerable patients to include midwives, obstetricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, surgeons and other medical specialists.
Eligible patients can now access telehealth from any GP at a practice they have visited in the past year.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.