National access to telehealth has been one of the successes of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, the Prime Minister announced that remote access to health appointments would be extended until the end of June.
This announcement was what I consider very last minute – it was made two weeks out from the proposed end of telehealth – causing much stress and concern among psychologists and their clients.
It was also not the guarantee Australians need.
Given the undeniable benefits of telehealth for the client and the practitioner, the Australian Association of Psychologists is calling for telehealth to be made a permanent part of our healthcare system.
Remote appointments have been shown to have as much benefit and satisfaction as face-to-face service delivery.
They have also allowed more Australians to keep up, or return, to treatment. They are also cheaper.
We have found that telehealth also:
- Increases access to those with mental health conditions that make attendance at a clinic difficult (such as agoraphobia, a fear of being in public)
- Increases access to those who have physical disabilities who may struggle with mobility or suitable transport
- Allows those who have carer responsibilities to attend psychological treatment without being absent from the home for long periods of time
- Reduces the risk of transfer of illness to vulnerable populations
- Increases access for those in rural and remote regions of Australia to psychological care
- Allows for clients to access psychological treatment outside of their local geographical area that may have long wait times, allowing quicker access to care and support
- Allows clients access to more providers who are experienced in treating their mental health conditions, particularly those with rare disorders.
There are some potential drawbacks to telehealth services.
Some psychologists don’t enjoy working over the phone or on video, some clients worry their confidentiality could be breached, and there’s a concern that remote appointments make it difficult to assess the risk posed to someone who is a victim of violence or who has severe mental illness.
However, the benefits far outweigh these drawbacks.
For me, the ability to provide telehealth has meant that I have continued to regularly see my clients – most of whom have disabilities, are parents of young children, or have a condition that makes them more susceptible to viruses like COVID-19.
I have health vulnerabilities myself and was advised by my doctor early on in the pandemic to reduce my exposure to the general public.
Although I found talking to clients over video call or phone to be quite draining (a common experience for psychologists who had to switch to only using telehealth) it allowed me to stay in contact with the majority of my clients very easily. It meant they were able to maintain their mental health through some very stressful times.
My clients have fully embraced the new system.
I’ve had mums able to put their children down for a nap during a session with me, enabling them to focus solely on the session rather than us both chasing infants around my office.
I work with multiple birth parents (parents of twins, triplets, quadruplets etc) so this came as a very welcome rest for them and for me. Parents having to home school their children during lockdowns had an adult to talk to, finding relief from their stress and anxiety.
One client no longer had to travel for hours to get to my office. Others have been able to attend appointments during their lunch hour and still manage to have a bite to eat.
Although some clients were distressed about not seeing me in person, they have been grateful to maintain the connection and have someone to debrief about their life and deal with the stress the pandemic caused for them.
I know of people who have exhausted all options for help in their local area but have been able to find someone in another location who was able to see them very quickly because of the introduction of telehealth.
People living in urban areas from diverse cultural groups have been able to find psychologists who speak their language or who identify as from the same cultural group, making the therapy culturally appropriate.
If universal telehealth is not continued, then these clients will not be able to access services in a timely manner that is culturally appropriate.
Telehealth is not suitable for everyone, but for those who need it, it can be the difference between getting support and not.
We urgently need it to be made permanent to give long-term certainty to psychologists and Australians in need of mental health support.
Clients often make appointments eight weeks in advance. They need to know now that they will be able to access psychological treatment beyond June.
People under stress need certainty when it comes to getting help.
We are calling on the government to make telehealth a permanent and universal addition to the Medicare Benefits Scheme.
Amanda Curran is a practising psychologist and the chief services officer of the Australian Association of Psychologists