GP practices across Australia are rising to the challenge of COVID-19.

By far, the most widely read Australian Doctor article this week is a Quick Guide to Medicare funding for telehealth consultations.

A close second is a recent article that that discusses the impact of the pandemic on day-to-day practice. Other articles and reader comments on AusDoc.PLUS, home of Australian Doctor, reflect GPs’ concerns about their own safety and their brave commitment to continue seeing patients.

Unsurprisingly, GPs feel deeply about the Federal Health Department’s decision to introduce Medicare-funded telehealth consultations for all patients. It is a fundamental change to the doctor-patient relationship.

In fact, the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Adviser, Professor Michael Kidd says it is probably the most significant change in the history of Medicare.

The change has inspired heated debate, with many readers questioning the value of a consult in which the doctor cannot feel for tenderness, test a urine sample or conduct a breast exam.

However, Professor Kidd emphasises that telemedicine is not intended to replace physical consultations entirely. Doctors must offer a face-to-face consultation or arrange for another GP to see the patient if this is necessary, he says.

Both the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of GPs have come out in support of telehealth funding.

GPs will adapt to telehealth, senior RACGP leader Associate Professor Charlotte Hespe told Australian Doctor.

The Sydney GP says her practice will offer telehealth to about half its patients, and it will stay open for face-to-face consultations for as long as possible.

“My biggest fear is the population of patients too afraid to come into the surgery. I’m worried that chronic illness care will get put off between 4-6 months.”

It’s a lot for GPs to keep up with. Just weeks ago, it was considered a privacy risk to send an email to a patient. Now, the Department of Health is funding a long list of consultation types conducted over the phone or with programs like Skype, FaceTime and Zoom.

Professor Kidd has also given his blessing to email communication. And that includes sending a photograph of a prescription to a patient or their pharmacy: no fax necessary and no need to send the original via Australian Post.

General practice will never be the same.

Clifford Fram, former Editor in Chief of Australian Doctor Group.