The country’s first 24-hour video-consulting and medication prescription service for General Practitioners (GPs), Doctors on Demand, has expanded to include appointments with mental health experts at all times of the day.
The ‘turnkey’ health service provides registered mental health practitioners and their patients with a new option for delivering and accessing mental health services.
Patients can access a registered Australian psychologist using Doctors on Demand on their computer, or via an app with their mobile phone or tablet.
Doctors on Demand CEO John Martin said the service aimed to improve mental health by providing greater access for patients who had been restricted in the past by distance, time, or even scheduling constraints.
“Our aim is to improve access to mental healthcare for all Australians, which will have benefits for rural and indigenous health, hospitals and outpatients and the primary health network around Australia,” he said.
“Psychologists in rural, regional and remote Australia account for approximately 20% of the psychology workforce, so there continues to be a need to increase accessibility of mental health professionals to all Australians and our platform is aiming to do this,” he said.
“Telepsychology is a solution for patients who seek treatment in a less-confronting or more private manner, and we are providing a safe and secure online environment for these patients to access the support they need,” he said.
The National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) is currently proposing that Medicare rebates be made available to patients living in “telehealth eligible” areas for telepsychology services provided under two existing programs:
-Access to Allied Psychological Services (ATAPS); and
-Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the Medical Benefits Scheme (MBS) program.
In rural areas, GP mental health encounters per 1,000 people decline from 668 in major cities to 241 in remote/very remote areas, and even less for psychology service, despite the suicide rate outside a major city sitting 66 per cent higher than it is within a major city.
Mr Martin supported the National Rural Health Alliance’s proposal and said timely diagnoses by a mental health expert via teleconferencing could, for example, help a recently separated mother suffering from depression cope with the pressures of managing a busy household by accessing psychology services from the privacy of her home when the children are asleep.
“A quick check in via a fully registered telehealth expert could also assist a time-poor CBD worker or a university student to privately and securely access treatment for anxiety or depression, for example,” he said.
“Being more open to ‘telepsychology’ will assist many people who find attendance at a face-to-face practice confronting,” he said.
“Patients can speak to a registered professional on the go, from anywhere,” he said.
All patients complete the DASS checklist prior to their mental health appointment – a 21-item self-report instrument designed to measure patient emotion – as is standard for face-to-face appointments.
Mr Martin said that for mental health professionals working for the service, the model provides flexibility and control.
“Psychologists who sign up to the Doctors on Demand telehealth service can set their own rates, their own working hours, and the length of each appointment,” he said.
“For example, if psychologists want to switch to part-time work while on leave, or on holidays, they can do so with our service,” he said.
The platform may also enable psychologists to work from home rather than an office, which typically takes up a large percentage of a practitioners’ operating costs.
According to the American Telemedicine Association, up to 15 million people used telehealth services in the United States during 2015, up 50 percent from 2013.
Telepsychology has been in place for almost 20 years at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and other international government organisations that serve patients in rural areas, according to the American Psychology Association.
Mr Martin said the company would begin working further with psychologists to continue to extend the service.
“Doctors on Demand was developed to provide GPs and GP clinics with foundational technology to support their eHealth strategies, and now we can offer an holistic approach to eHealth with mental health services,” he said.
Doctors on Demand launched the country’s first 24-hour GP video-consulting service on December 1 2016 with a team of experienced practitioners. To date the service has provided over 1000 consultations across Australia. The service is available at www.doctorsondemand.com.au or via apps for Apple and Android.