Have you ever had to wait days for an appointment to see a doctor to get a prescription or a medical certificate? Needed medical assistance overnight or outside of standard business hours? Thanks to telehealth, ‘online doctors’ are fast becoming Australia’s new normal way to consult GP when it’s most convenient for you. An online doctor (sometimes referred to as a ‘virtual doctor’ or ‘telemedicine doctor’) is generally a telehealth medical service which provides face-to-face doctor consultations using video calls via a mobile phone or computer. This type of consulting, called ‘telehealth’ has grown rapidly with advancements in technology.<

With the spread of the Coronavirus more doctors adopted the technology, enabling thousands of people to access their services during this difficult time.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports there were only 41 doctors per 10,000 people in Australia 2020. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), almost 25% of the people seeking a doctor’s consultation faced delays due to scarcity of appointments or long waiting times, demonstrating the demand-supply gap and the pressure faced by the Australian healthcare system. This situation worsens according to the geographical location of the patient. According to AIHW, almost 7 million Australians live in rural or remote areas, limiting access and availability to timely healthcare.

Delays in getting to see a doctor, limited access to healthcare in rural and remote areas, the convenience of having a consultation at a time and place that suits and access to after-hours care are amongst the factors driving the popularity of telehealth services.

What To Expect From A Consult With An Online Doctor ?

Most online doctor services provide the option for the patient to take the consultation via either a mobile device (mobile phone, tablet) or a desktop computer, allowing the freedom to choose where to have the consult. Whilst some providers allow the choice between a video or voice only consult, it is deemed best practice for the doctor to be able to engage with the patient visually via a video telehealth consultation.

Before seeing the doctor, the patient is required to provide their relevant personal details. Services should only ask for information directly related to your telehealth service and provide transparent details on how the service encrypts your data. Generally, this includes
  • Full name
  • Address
  • Date of birth
  • Email address
  • Mobile number – It’s important that a mobile phone number is provided as all prescriptions issued are generated as e-prescriptions, and an email address is used to provide any referrals or certificates.
  • You will need to provide your Medicare number (or IHI) to be issued a prescription.
Depending on the online doctor service, you’ll either book an appointment from an online calendar, or with an on-demand online doctor service (like Hola Health) and be placed in a virtual waiting room immediately after providing your personal details, ready to see the next available practitioner. If a patient has an existing relationship with the online doctor (e.g. a face-to-face consultation has been had in the last 12 months) a Medicare rebate may be available. For those patients who haven’t seen the consulting doctor before, the consult is privately billed, and the patient is responsible for the full cost.

During an online consultation, the doctor will seek to understand the patients’ health history along with any current symptoms.  Not all consultation types are available via telehealth, so it’s important to understand which types of services telehealth is best used for. These include:

Benefits & Limitations of Online Doctors

There are many benefits to using an online doctor service, including;

1. Accessibility

Providing online doctor consultations as an interim care giver service used when existing GP practices are either full or unavailable, unlocks supply that has traditionally been inaccessible to patients. Additionally, people in rural and remote areas where in person care is highly limited or non-existent, are able to connect to a doctor in a timely manner without the need to travel long distances.

2. Convenience & Ease

Consult a doctor with the click of a button without ever needing to leave the house. Medical certificates, prescriptions and referrals all delivered to the patients mobile device or email address. With some online doctor services, patients can even get any prescription medicine generated from an online consult delivered direct to their door.

3. Reduced costs for patients

Whilst some consults cannot be bulk billed, there are a range of telehealth services providing well priced, value for money offerings. Fewer and fewer GP practices are able to provide 100% Bulk Billed consultations. As of 2023, the average gap fee for a GP consultation in Australia is $42.44. A traditional medical practice requires patients to book a standard consultation for a medical certificate, referral, or a repeat prescription. Online telehealth services like Hola Health provide heavily reduced rates for services that don’t require the full length of an in-person consultation.
  • Telehealth video consultations
At an average of $7.22 cheaper than the average gap fee, these 8-minute consultations and a cost-effective choice for multi-day medical certificates, multiple prescriptions, and specialist and pathology referrals.
  • Medical certificates
The Australian Medical Association’s guideline’s for medical certificates advise that a medical certificate may be issued ‘based on a medical condition observed by the doctor or reported by the patient and accepted by the doctor.’ Because of this, a face-to-face appointment (and the associated cost) is often unnecessary. Hola Health, for example, provides a telehealth medical certificates whereby a patient fills in an online form requesting a certificate and reporting their symptoms. An Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) registered doctor or Nurse Practitioner reviews the written request rather (rather than a in person one). This reduces time for the appointment, and thus the cost.
  • Online Prescriptions
Similar to the telehealth medical certificate process, Hola Health telehealth prescriptions also use a form to minimise the face-to-face time required to discuss the details of the request, and in turn the cost to the patient. Use the form to request your medication and a doctor or nurse practitioner will see you for a short telehealth video consult within 15 minutes of the request.

4. Travelling for holidays or work

Being in a new place and not knowing where to get access to care can be daunting. Using an online doctor means you don’t need to battle to find a GP practice and secure an appointment.

5. Reduced load on the healthcare system

Online consultations can be quick and effective anytime day or night, reducing the need for patients to attend hospital emergency rooms for non-urgent illnesses.

Challenges With The Use Of Online Doctors

  • Not all consult types can be provided via an online doctor consult. Physical examinations and injections are examples of consultations that still require an in-person visit.
  • Internet competence: Patients need to be able to use the application on their chosen device. Some segments of the community, such as the elderly, may not have access to a phone or computer or struggle to use it effectively.
  • Availability: Internet access may be limited or even unavailable in some regional and remote areas.
  • Access to rebates (government, health insurers) is not always available when using an online doctor.
  • Doctors may be unable to prescribe some medicines including sedatives and S8 classification drugs.
  • Security & privacy: Whilst reputable online doctors take patient security & privacy very seriously, the nature of the consult being an online transaction means it could be susceptible to risk.
Telehealth and telemedicine have become an essential part of healthcare in Australia. Technology is changing our lives rapidly with convenient time-saving applications everywhere. A recent analysis from McKinsey & Company indicates that telehealth doctor services had stabilized at 38 times pre-covid usage. There is an increase in the willingness to use an online doctor by consumers as well as an acceptance of the change by the broader health industry. Governments have also recognized the need to support this evolving practice of care, enabling regulatory change in support of wider access to telehealth. This area is quickly evolving with innovation fostered by private companies and public organisations alike.

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This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. For emergencies please immediately contact 000.