Telehealth: Seeing benefits in COVID-19 adversity

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Technology is helping one of Australia’s leading eye care providers to connect with people isolated by travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lions Eye Institute is employing its years of experience in telehealth services to minimise disruption for patients and doctors alike.

Its Lions Outback Vision team, which has been caring for rural and remote communities in Western Australia since 2011, had a significant uptake in teleophthalmology in 2020. 

Associate Professor Angus Turner, the team’s McCusker Director, said outback consultations were more than 50 percent higher during the peak COVID-19 months than in the same 2019 period.

“In April and May 2019 we saw 93 and 95 patients respectively. In April and May 2020, those figures skyrocketed to 162 and 205.

“Telehealth is an exciting area, and the real-life restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 have placed it on the agenda,” he added.

“It is an opportunity to provide increased patient access to eye care, that is as useful in urban areas as it has been in remote and rural Western Australia.” 

The Perth-based Lions Eye Institute clinics also saw a rapid upturn, with 879 telehealth consultations in April 2020, up from 182 in March.

Patients have reported satisfaction with the virtual experience, saying being able to speak with their ophthalmologist or treating clinician gives peace of mind when it is difficult or impossible to attend the clinic. 

They said it also helps with filling prescriptions, while some telehealth services are being temporarily covered by Medicare to help give patients access by videoconference or telephone. 

Though Lions Eye Institute’s ophthalmologists prefer to see their patients face to face, they say virtual services have helped to detect certain eye conditions earlier than normal. 

“It provides opportunities to treat our patients, to touch base with them and see how they’re going in these challenging times,” said Lions Eye Institute's Managing Director, Professor Bill Morgan.

It has also provided protection for patients, staff and specialists, as the close physical contact of some eye examinations creates a high risk for respiratory droplet transmission.

“Many of our patients are in high-risk categories for COVID-19, so this technology protects them while enabling us to continue their care,” Professor Morgan added.

Lions Eye Institute ophthalmologists have also been looking at further benefits of such video visits, such as checking on patients’ symptoms, refining triage, ensuring adherence to therapy, answering questions and providing reassurance.

“We are now considering developing this service further at our Perth clinics for aged and disabled patients where face-to-face consultations are not essential,” Professor Morgan said.

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