Enhanced access to psychological services for regional people has been welcomed by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA).
Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra last week Minister for Regional Development, Senator Fiona Nash, said the 2017-2018 budget would include a new Medicare rebate for online ‘telehealth’ consultations with psychologists.
“We know a major barrier for people living in rural and remote Australia, who need mental health assistance, is the ability to access psychological help,” NFF Chief Executive Tony Mahar said.
“A telehealth approach to psychological services has the potential to enable farmers, and other regional people, to connect with clinicians, based anywhere in Australia, at almost anytime."
Under the new initiative from November 1, people living in rural and remote Australia can claim a Medicare rebate for videoconferencing consultations with psychologists and other allied health professionals.
RFDS Chief Executive Martin Laverty said early intervention was the key to more successful treatment of mental health illnesses.
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.
“The rate of suicide in remote and very remote Australia is almost double the rate in 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.”
Mr Butt confirmed that 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,” Mr Butt said.
The initiative, as announced today, will cost $9 million over four years from 2017–18 to 2020–21.
The Medicare rebatable psychological services via telehealth will be available for patients living in Modified Monash Model regions four to seven, which cover smaller country towns and remote and very remote locations.
Under the new arrangements, up to seven of the 10 sessions currently available under Medicare rebatable mental health plans will be available via telehealth.
Mr Mahar said the success of the telehealth program would go hand-in-hand with the availability of reliable internet connectivity.
“Regional people also suffer from inequitable access to reliable telecommunications and so it will be imperative that regional patients have the ability to log-on to a reliable connection.
“Internet outages and / or frequent drop-outs have the potential to exacerbate patients’ problems.”
Mr Mahar said it was comforting that Minister Nash was also the Minister for Regional Telecommunications.
“Minister Nash understands, 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," Mr Mahar said.
The National Farmers' Federation and the National Rural Health Alliance are members of the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition. The Coalition is a group of like-minded organisations who have come together to end the data drought and champion better communications services for consumers and small businesses living in rural, remote or regional area.