The peak body for psychiatrists has urged Australia’s Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, to make permanent the availability of telehealth and telephone consultations for all patients wherever they happen to live.
‘We strongly support the ongoing use of telehealth in psychiatry after COVID-19 as a complement to face-to-face consultations,’ said the President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP).
‘Psychiatry is particularly well-suited to bring this type of consultation into the mix of treatment options available given patients do not usually require hands-on physical examination at every consultation, and there is an ongoing therapeutic relationship,’ said Associate Professor John Allan.
‘We know that for many people, in certain situations and for particular mental illnesses, telehealth is a more convenient, flexible and safe option compared to navigating crowded and complex public transport systems to travel sometimes large distances to access mental health services and support.
‘This commitment to mental health, amongst other things, is about equity of access for all patients.
‘It will be especially important for people with personal mobility issues, workers who undertake long and inconvenient shifts, people with severe mental disorders who may face socio-economic challenges, parents or carers with demanding responsibilities, and those living in regional, rural and remote areas and even some outer metropolitan areas.
‘Importantly, in facilitating more choice for consumers of mental health services this reform will also bring productivity gains with patients spending less time traveling and away from their work.
‘The appropriateness of quality mental health care will always be dependent upon a range of factors, including technological adeptness and availability, patient profile and disorder, and personal preference.
‘But it is important for clinicians and patients to be able to choose together the best possible care in accordance with the specific requirements for each set of circumstances.’
The government moved quickly to introduce new items numbers for psychiatry services by telehealth to allow for the continuation of mental health care during the pandemic, and is currently monitoring and reviewing the use and impact of expanded telehealth services due to expire 30 September this year.
The RANZCP has long advocated for the benefits of telehealth and called for it to be made available to all patients, regardless of geographic location.
‘Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth use for psychiatry was increasingly being taken up, with more than 65,000 telehealth psychiatry consultations taking place in 2018-2019 for patients in non-metropolitan areas.
‘This indicates that psychiatrist engagement and patient confidence in using telehealth for mental health care was steadily improving even then.
‘More recent data suggests this uptake and acceptance of telehealth for psychiatry patients continues, even while a significant proportion of face-to-face consultations are still taking place.
‘This is supported by other consumer surveys on telehealth services and the feedback psychiatrists are receiving – patients greatly value the availability of telehealth as an option for mental health consultations.
The RANZCP believes professional practice models should always act to further the best interests of patients.
‘COVID might have accelerated the roll out of telehealth and highlighted its benefits, but is has also shown these services should have a permanent place in the treatment options available to mental health professionals and their patients,’ said Associate Professor Allan.
The RANZCP looks forward to working alongside the government as they consider how best to transform telehealth services to address the future mental health needs of the whole community.
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For all other expert mental health information, visit Your Health in Mind, the RANZCP’s consumer health information website.