15 July 2022

‘Tele-clinic’ aims to cut mental health wait times

Psychology Telehealth

A pilot collaboration led by insurer Medibank could help GPs get their patients into virtual psychological care faster.

A “telepsychology clinic” designed to cut waiting times for referred patients could be available to GP practices nationally if a trial is successful.

The launch of the pilot comes as the lead partner, Medibank, continues to expand its operations beyond its traditional role as a health insurer.

Announced earlier this week, the pilot is a collaboration between Medibank, Medinet and the MyHealth clinic network. It allows GPs to develop a care plan then refer mental health patients to one of the network of psychologists signed up to the trial. The GP and/or patient pick a practitioner by reviewing their profile then the patient books a virtual consult.

The service is currently only available through GPs at MyHealth clinics, although Medibank said it envisaged making it available to practices outside the network if it proves successful.

A web-based “concierge service” helps patients manage the referral, payment and Medicare claims as well as booking their appointments.

If no one in the network takes their fancy, the GP can just refer the patient to a psychologist they know, as they would do usually.

“What we’re seeking to do here by the use of a virtual psychology service, which is essentially tightly linked to the GP, is to cut the waiting time down to a maximum couple of weeks, and to keep the GP in the loop,” said Medibank’s CEO of health services, Dr Andrew Wilson.

“The genesis of the service was a request from GPs to do this.”

One in three psychologists has now closed their books to new clients, according to the Australian Psychological Society, whereas before the pandemic, the figure was only one in 100.

Dr Wilson said the pilot had been able to sign up practitioners who were attracted to telehealth.

“We spoke to psychologists who were interested in working in a virtual environment,” he said. “They valued the opportunity to offer psychological services to locations which might not have ready access to a local psychologist. They were looking for flexibility in their consultation times and a supportive network of other psychologists in the service.”

If patients were comfortable receiving their care remotely, then they would have a wider pool of psychologists to draw on and would likely have a shorter wait time.

“The nature of online treatment means we aren’t limited to a specific location to engage mental health professionals – we can engage practitioners from across the country,” he said. “We already employ a number of psychologists at Medibank who we’re using for the pilot.”

But while the program may let mental health patients get help quicker, the disappearance of Medicare rebates for phone calls over 20 minutes (unless billed under the Better Access Scheme) will still be a barrier for some who opt for a telepsychology consult.

The pilot sits well with Medibank’s stated strategy “to grow as a health company” beyond its insurance arm, with Medibank also an investor in pilot partner MyHealth, one of Medibank’s “health segment” assets.

This asset group grew by a whopping $36.7% between December 2020 and December 2021, based on strong demand for community-based healthcare and covid-related services.

Dr Jared Dart, a GP, founder of iHealth Care and co-founder of telehealth platform Welio, said while he was not familiar with the details of the pilot it was important to support in-practice collaboration as well as referrals to specialist practitioners.

“We need to be delegating as much as we can to people who are going to work collaboratively,” he said. “I think that extends to practice nurses, who are well utilised but perhaps could be better utilised, and I think also to pharmacists and psychologists, who could be utilised within general practice.

“But if you have a funding system that supports them as individual businesses only, rather than collaborative entities, you’ll get the behaviour that you incentivise – which is consultations.”

Clarification: This story has been edited to acknowledge that phone consults over 20 minutes are still rebated under the Better Access Scheme.