What is telehealth and how does it work?


6 minutes

17 April 2020

Woman holding up phone

Healthcare can be delivered through your phone, tablet or computer. It’s called telehealth, and here’s what you should know about it.

Did you know it’s possible to call your psychologist for a session? Or have a video chat with your physio to check on that sore knee? Or get important advice from a health provider who you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach?

This is the basic idea behind telehealth. It’s the method of delivering health care through a phone call or videoconference.

COVID-19 and social distancing have brought with them some changes, including telehealth becoming more widely available. Just as we don’t know how long social distancing will last, we don’t know yet if telehealth will become part of our new normal.

For now, we’re here to answer your basic questions about how telehealth works, what you can expect, and how you can get access.

What is telehealth (officially)?

The word telehealth sounds official, but it’s actually not. It’s not an organisation or a government scheme, just a method of delivery.

The Department of Health defines telehealth as “the use of telecommunication techniques for the purpose of providing telemedicine, medical education, and health education over a distance.”1

In plain English, this means providing health care or health education through phone or video.

Depending on the situation, telehealth can encompass diagnosis, treatment, and preventive (educational) aspects of healthcare services.

That means telehealth can include:

  • Consultations – Like a phone session with your psychologist
  • Prescriptions – Prescriptions made via telehealth appointments can be mailed to you or electronically sent to your local pharmacy to be filled
  • Diagnosis – A doctor could ask you questions over the phone or use visual identification by video in order to diagnose some illnesses
  • Information sharing– Accessing general health information

As for what specific services are available through telehealth – that’s largely up to the providers themselves.

When learning about telehealth, you might also hear the word telemedicine. What’s the difference? Telemedicine is the service delivered, and telehealth is the way it’s delivered. Just like your favourite shows are delivered by television, telemedicine is delivered by telehealth.

Now we’ve cleared all that up, let’s look at how telehealth works.

How does telehealth work?

Healthcare providers aren’t required to provide telehealth consultations. It’s totally up to them whether they offer telehealth services.

The official part is that, just like an in-person appointment, telehealth consultations are subject to regulations from your health professionals and from the Australian government. These treatments are part of the system.

This means that in some cases, telehealth consultations can be covered by Medicare or Private Health Insurance.

So how would you book a telehealth appointment?

Just like an in-person appointment, the booking process is up to your health provider. Contact your provider to find out if they offer telehealth. They will decide if it would be a good fit for your individual health needs, and instruct you on how to book.

What should you expect from a telehealth appointment?

A telehealth appointment is a lot like an in-person appointment, but you’ll see the provider on a screen or speak to them on the phone from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re booking a videoconference, you will need a smartphone, tablet or computer that is video capable. If you have questions about this part, just ask your provider.

What services are available through telehealth?

There’s a long list of services that can be delivered by telehealth.

General medicine, mental health, paediatrics, cancer services, preparation for childbirth – the list goes on and on.

But what’s really available to you depends on providers. With the exception of hands-on services (you can’t get a massage through your phone, unfortunately), it is generally worth checking to see if you can find the treatment you need.

Now for another big question: what telehealth services can I get covered for?

Telehealth with Medicare

For people in remote areas or aged care facilities, and in some other circumstances, Medicare can help cover the cost of some telehealth treatments. More information is available from the Australian Government. 

Telehealth with Private Health Cover

Private health cover can help pay for telehealth treatment, too. Coverage will depend on who you’re insured with.

HBF covers telehealth for a number of services including psychology, physio, nutrition, and occupational therapy.

Stay well at home with telehealth

HBF covers telehealth for Mental Health, Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy and more.

Learn More

How to claim for telehealth benefits through private health cover

Just like claiming on face-to-face treatments, the way you claim will depend on your health fund.

To claim with HBF, you will just need an invoice from your provider. You can submit this invoice to HBF via myHBF or the HBF app.

It’s worth noting that HBF doesn’t allow electronic claiming for telehealth, so the claiming experience might be a bit different to what you're used to. For example, the provider may require you to pay the full amount upfront, and then claim back from HBF.

Normal waiting periods, benefits, limits and exclusions apply. Some additional exclusions (including group consults and classes) also apply. Out of pocket costs are likely to apply. See full details and T&Cs.

1 Department of Health - Telehealth (2015)