New report looks at uptake of telehealth in antenatal care during COVID-19 lockdowns

Almost 1 in 10 antenatal services for March to September 2020 were delivered via telehealth according to a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Antenatal care during COVID-19, 2020, includes information on antenatal care services, both face-to-face and telehealth, claimed through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). The report covers a range of private antenatal services and it does not include information on antenatal care provided by public hospitals.

‘These antenatal specific telehealth services were introduced in March 2020, to enable Australians to stay at home where possible to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,’ said AIHW spokesperson Ms. Bernice Cropper.

Over 1.2 million MBS services for antenatal care were processed by Medicare from January to September 2020.  This included 1.1 million face-to-face services, which was a 10% decrease compared to the same period in 2019. The reduction was mostly offset by an uptake of 91,000 telehealth services. This resulted in an overall reduction of just 2% in antenatal care services.

Some areas of Australia were more likely to access telehealth antenatal services. The uptake of telehealth was highest in Victoria, accounting for 15% of antenatal services processed from March to September 2020. This was followed by South Australia where 12% of services accessed were telehealth.

‘Given the extended lockdown experienced by Victorians last year, it is not unexpected that antenatal telehealth services were most popular in Victoria’ Ms. Cropper said.

Across Australia, telephone services were far more common than services delivered by video-conference, with telephone services making up 86% of antenatal telehealth services.

The number of pregnancy-related ultrasounds performed remained steady from January 2018 through to June 2020, however, there was a 10% increase in the number of ultrasounds performed between July and September 2020. This could reflect some health care providers increased monitoring in response to service disruptions or potential consequences of COVID-19 infections, but further investigations are required to understand these changes.

‘Antenatal care is an important part of pregnancy monitoring. Facilitating ongoing visits with a midwife and/or doctor assists to promote healthy lifestyle choices, and screens for and manages health problems for both mother and baby,’ Ms. Cropper said.

‘The impact of any changes in antenatal care service use on outcomes for mothers and babies is not available from MBS data. This will be explored in the future through analysis of data from the National Perinatal Data Collection in the Australia’s Mothers and Babies publications.’ 

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