FARMERS and medical professionals have praised moves to enhance the delivery of virtual mental health support services into regional and remote areas of Australia, where standards are lower and suicides rates higher.
Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash unveiled the telehealth boost for rural psychological services that will cost $9 million over four years from 2017/18 to 2020/21.
Senator Nash said it was the first outcome from the Coalition’s Regional Australia Ministerial Taskforce that met for the first time last month of which Health Minister Greg Hunt is also a member and also backed the improved access to psychologists in rural areas through the introduction of a new Medicare rebate.
In her National Press Club address this week in Canberra, Senator Nash announced rural and remote Australians would, for the first time, have access to psychology through tele-conferencing paid for by Medicare.
“This will mean rural and remote Australians can use Skype, FaceTime or video calling to access psychologists and psychiatrists all over Australia from their home or a local medical centre,” she said.
“Many Australians who are going without mental health treatment will now receive it.
“I thank the Health Minister Greg Hunt for recognising the importance of this issue to regional Australia and for delivering the very first outcome from the Regional Australia Ministerial Taskforce in such a short period of time.”
Senator Nash said mental health was a “significant issue” in rural and remote areas.
“Lack of easy access to a nearby psychologist often means mental health issues go untreated,” she said.
“It's difficult and sometimes impossible for rural and remote Australians to attend face-to-face counselling.
“For those wondering, high definition video conferencing requires internet speed of just 1.5 megabits a second.
“A typical Sky Muster plan delivers enough data for 66 hours a month of high definition video conferencing.”
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) all welcomed Senator Nash’s revelation of the new rebate that will be included in this year’s federal budget.
NFF CEO Tony Mahar said a major barrier for people living in rural and remote Australia, who needed mental health assistance, was the ability to access psychological help.
Mr Mahar said a tele-health approach to psychological services had the potential to enable farmers, and other regional people, to connect with clinicians, based anywhere in Australia, at almost any time.
But Mr Mahar said the telehealth program’s success would go hand-in-hand with the availability of reliable internet connectivity as regional people also suffered from inequitable access to reliable telecommunications.
“It will be imperative that regional patients have the ability to log-on to a reliable connection,” he said.
“Internet outages and/or frequent drop-outs have the potential to exacerbate patients’ problems.”
But Mr Mahar said it was comforting that Senator Nash was also the Minister for Regional Telecommunications and understood, “better than most, the challenges we face when it comes to regional telecommunications”.
“I am sure, reliable internet connectivity would have been a key consideration when this initiative was developed," he said.
RFDS Chief Executive Martin Laverty said early intervention was the key to more successful treatment of mental health illnesses.
“Country Australians currently see mental health professionals at one-fifth of the rate of city people,” he said.
“Any effort to overcome barriers to mental health care in the bush has got to be applauded.”
NRHA Chief Executive Officer David Butt said accessing services to support mental health and prevent suicides continued to be a serious challenge for people living in rural and remote Australia.
He said the rate of suicide in remote and very remote Australia was almost double that of major cities.
“The impact of suicide or attempted suicide is also far reaching, particularly in small close-knit communities where, for every member of the community, it can be a personal loss,” he said.
Mr Butt said in rural and remote communities, mental health services were often limited, with far poorer access to specialised services, such as psychology, than in major cities.
“We therefore welcome Minister Nash’s extension of telehealth services to include psychology – it is a very positive step forward,” he said.
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) said the rebate change would help to significantly improve access to tele-psychology services for many rural and remote Australians.
RDAA President Dr Ewen McPhee said expanding the availability through Medicare for psychology services via video-conferencing was a “great step forward in making psychological care much more accessible for those living in the bush and the Government should be commended for it”.
“It reflects the need for flexibility in the delivery of psychological care and other healthcare services in country Australia, to enable people living in rural and remote communities to access an increased range of health services closer to home,” he said.
“It also recognises the immense importance of having a multidisciplinary, team-based approach in providing healthcare in the bush - one that includes both doctors and other health professionals like psychologists.
“Increasing the use of rebated telehealth services for psychological care should significantly reduce the waiting time for rural and remote patients in accessing this important care.
“Rural patients who currently have to travel long distances to access these services face-to-face will now have the benefit of accessing this care close to home via a video consult.”
Dr McPhee said early intervention in mental healthcare can assist a patient’s outlook towards improved health.
He said given the prevalence of mental health issues in the bush was significantly higher than in the cities, it was “great to see the government exploring flexible models and opportunities to provide increased access to psychology services for rural and remote patients”.
A statement from the government said the Medicare rebatable psychological services via telehealth would be available for patients living in Modified Monash Model regions four to seven, which cover smaller country towns and remote and very remote locations.
“This will ensure that the services go to areas with the biggest access challenges, not to larger regional centres that are more likely to have resident psychologists and other health professionals,” Mr Hunt said.
Consumers Health Forum CEO Leanne Wells, said the government’s announcement provided a valuable signpost to making the most of telehealth in semi remote and remote Australia where a full array of multidisciplinary health services were often inadequate and rates of untreated illness were significantly above those in urban areas.
“The dramatically higher rates of suicide in country Australia and the fact that people in those regions see mental health professionals at one-fifth the rate of Australians in the cities, make online psychology a natural for Medicare coverage which is designed to support universal access to care,” she said.
“The move towards funding services that can be delivered effectively through a mix of in-person consultations and non face-to-face modes is part of modernising Medicare.”