As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of telehealth services has grown exponentially in Australia over the past three years. Over this period, a broad range of telehealth platforms and business models have been launched, including a number with asynchronous telehealth models (that is, not requiring a virtual telephone or video consultation between the doctor and patient), but instead relying on health information supplied by the patient and interactions via chat or text message, for the prescribing of medicines.
On 24 May 2023, the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler, expressed concerns about the supply of prescription drugs online via this form of asynchronous telehealth model. The Minister said that “I have been concerned at some of the reports about … business models … that have developed to fill what is clearly a shortage of access to traditional doctors’ services...” and that “there is a question mark over some of these business models that are being developed at the fringe”.
Separately, the Medical Board of Australia (MBA), the regulator of medical doctors in Australia, has investigated the use of online telehealth services which facilitate the prescribing of prescription medicines. The outcomes of these investigations indicate that the MBA considers some telehealth business models fail to ensure the same standards of care as would be expected in face-to-face consultations.
In December 2022, the MBA published for consultation draft revised telehealth guidelines for medical doctors, and the release of the final guidelines is imminent (and will provide further clarity). The revised guidelines focus on patient safety, and according to an MBA spokesperson will “seek to close the gap between some new online prescribing business models and good medical practice”. While the Minister did not want to pre-empt the findings of the review by the MBA, he stated that the government is committed to “harness the benefits of … technology” in the health sector in a manner that enables continuing adherence to good clinical practice.
In light of the foregoing, we expect that there is likely to be greater scrutiny of and regulatory enforcement against online asynchronous prescribing telehealth models (and potentially other telehealth business models) in Australia in the coming years.