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Telstra’s health plan a cynical commercial ploy: Owler

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Quality health care would be undermined by a “cynical and inappropriate” push by telecommunications giant Telstra into primary care, AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has warned.

In a major expansion of its 18-month-old thrust into health care, Telstra has unveiled a service which would enable people to seek health advice over the phone or through the internet, claiming it would potentially save a trip to the GP or hospital emergency department.

The telecoms giant said its Tesltra ReadyCare service, developed in consultation with Swiss-based telemedicine provider Medgate, would give callers round-the-clock access to a GP.

In the past year, Telstra’s health division has spent $100 million buying up health software platforms that have been used to develop the ReadyCare service, which is expected to begin operations in mid-2015.

Under the model, patients can call in by phone or video. The initial contact will be with an operator who will determine if the inquiry needs to attention of one of the service’s medical staff. Callers may be asked to send photos or videos as part of the diagnostic process.

Once information has been provided, doctors are expected to call back with their recommendations within half an hour. Where medicines are prescribed, the doctor would fax a prescription to the nearest open pharmacy, where it can be collected by the patient.

Tesltra said that in more complex cases, the patient would be referred to conventional clinic, but the telecommunications company expects more than half of all inquiries to be resolved by the ReadyCare service.

But A/Professor Owler was scathing about Telstra’s plan, describing it as a recipe for bad medicine.

The AMA President told the AAP news service that that Association supported the use of telemedicine, but only where it complemented and supported a strong doctor-patient relationship, and warned that the ReadyCare service was completely at odds with proper models of care.

“We want people to maintain a regular contact with their GP, not just ring someone out of the blue,” he said. “[Through ReadyCare], they can just ring up a number and get a doctor on the other end that they have no knowledge of or relationship with, and get scripts and other treatments prescribed. This is not the sort of vision we have for general practice and primary care.”

A/Professor Owler said he had made his objections clear to Telstra when he was briefed on their plans early this month, and pledged the AMA would lobby the Federal Government to ensure there would be no Medicare rebate for ReadyCare services.

“This is a really cynical and inappropriate way for Telstra to be engaged in health care,” the AMA President said. “It’s a commercial solution dressed up as a health solution.”

Health for Telstra head Shame Solomon insisted that the ReadyCare service would be a complement to, rather substitute for, regular GP consultations.

He said all information from ReadyCare consultations would, subject to patient consent, be shared with a patient’s regular GP, to ensure continuity of care.

But A/Professor Owler said that did not obviate the fundamental problem that ReadyCare was inconsistent with the strong doctor-patient relationships fundamental to quality health care.

Adrian Rollins