Mental health


Managing Director of Telstra Health Mary Foley discusses the ways business and government have responded to the mental health challenges COVID-19 has brought about, and highlights the opportunities that recent innovations present for improving mental health care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an inflection point for digital health and is likely especially to be so for the delivery of mental health services.

COVID-19 has increased levels of anxiety, depression, stress and isolation and these impacts have been exacerbated by job loss and the significant financial loss many have experienced. In May this year, the World Health Organization used the pandemic to call for the scaling up and reorganisation of mental health services on a global scale in order to build a mental health system that is fit for the future. 

This is especially concerning when you consider that members of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners reported before the pandemic that mental health was the most common issue for which patients seek care. Already, we know from the Productivity Commission’s draft report on mental health from October 2019 that, conservatively, mental ill-health and suicide has an economic impact exceeding $43 billion per year.

If there is a lesson for mental health service delivery from this, it might be that digital technology can help us deliver healthcare flexibly, reducing isolation and improving social engagement and connectivity.

In mental health, a unique challenge this pandemic has presented is that the impediment to accessing services is universal, ignoring some inequities that exist across health systems such as the regional/rural divide, as even metropolitan services cannot provide care using their established models.

Supported by good digital solutions, governments and healthcare providers have responded quickly to establish new models of care, some leveraging existing resources utilised in new ways, and others combining solutions to deliver entirely new models.

At Telstra Health we have been working in a range of ways to support governments and healthcare providers during this period, including supporting mental health and alcohol and other drug (AOD) services in new initiatives.

New models of care during the pandemic have included enabling GPs and specialists to provide care to their patients using telehealth, supported by electronic health records that can be more easily shared. In addition to being safer during the pandemic by limiting unnecessary in-person interactions, access to telehealth has been an important tool to maximise access to mental health care at the GP and elsewhere.
An example of the way technology can be applied would be utilising telehealth or virtual consults where clinically appropriate over in-person consultations, and then using digital patient flow solutions to plan hospitals admissions and stays with the additional challenges of social distancing and other preventive policies in place.

One of the huge potential benefits of the acceleration of this digitisation is that as we enable people and information to be better connected, and when we connect across traditionally disconnected components of the health system, it improves clinical outcomes, quality, access to care, safety, and importantly, patient experience.

Digitising and connecting these systems can also lead to significant productivity improvements in health, making Australia’s health system more financially sustainable without reducing quality. Another often overlooked aspect of digital health is that digitisation of health information not only supports direct clinical care and self-care for patients, but also enables continuing improvement for health systems and clinical research.

Change in healthcare is often incremental and always complex. But we have an opportunity to accelerate and embed the positive change and innovation that has come about in response to COVID-19.
With changes to telehealth being reviewed consistently, let’s not lose sight of the long-term benefits and opportunities that telehealth and virtual care solutions can provide. Especially, we should be conscious of what we can learn from countries that already have telehealth and virtual care much more embedded in their systems for mental health care.

Supporting digital health, and creating high quality standardised electronic health information, carefully managed within privacy frameworks, will increase the flexibility and equity of the care we can deliver, and ultimately, support the sustainability of our health system into the future.

This is a chapter in Digitising human services, a CEDA report in which six technology and services experts discuss how to build on the rapid digitisation brought on by COVID-19 to deliver better human services. Click here to read the other sections and an overview by CEDA Chief Economist Jarrod Ball.

Other recent CEDA research