Topics: Mental health services in regional areas; codeine
And the Federal Health Minister is Greg Hunt. He joined me on the line earlier. Minister, good morning.
Do you agree mental health services in regional areas are in crisis?
I do believe there’s a very significant challenge, and this is because there are 4 million Australians every year who have some form of mental health challenge, and in the rural areas this is a significant challenge which is precisely why we’re looking at additional services such as rural headspace, telehealth, and online services.
Because no matter where you are, in the middle of the night if it’s 3am and there’s a dark, dark moment, you need to be able to speak to somebody or to get help.
And we’re also looking at reform of workforce to provide additional medical professionals within the rural areas across Australia.
You talk about workforce, the suicide rate in remote and regional areas is 40 per cent higher than in cities, yet in 15 rural and remote areas there are no registered psychologists. So, how do you tackle such a gaping need?
It is very important, that’s why we’ve established new headspaces for young people in places such as Grafton, and Katherine, and Gympie, and in the Pilbara and Whyalla.
It’s also, though, why a new $10 million psychological telehealth service is available, and that’s to bring the psychologist to the person, no matter where you are, absolutely critical service because somebody might be hundreds of kilometres from a psychological service.
And then with workforce, we’re looking over the coming months at a program with the Royal Australian College of GPs, and with the AMA, of providing greater support and greater incentives for more medical practitioners to be able to practice in the bush.
What sort of incentives?
So, what we’re looking at, at the moment, is what are the appropriate package of things.
The goal we’ve agreed on, the initiatives we’ll define over the coming months, but there’s good progress with both the College of General Practitioners, and with the AMA, and the College of Rural and Remote Medicine, on incentives that will help provide medical practitioners to be in the bush.
When you became Health Minister a year ago, you said from the outset that mental health would be a priority. Will there be another funding boost for mental health services in this year’s Federal Budget?
Well, we’ve already committed significant funds at the election with $190 million, and at the budget with $170 million, and then $110 million, only in the last two weeks, for youth mental health.
I’m very confident that as we go forward we will continue to build with additional services at each and every budget.
Why do you think suicide is such a big problem in this country?
Suicide is a terrible tragedy, and as a father of children who will be in their teens very shortly I’m acutely aware of the youth challenge.
As the minister who sees the extraordinary tragedies, I recognise that it’s enormous. So, we lose about 3000 people a year, the number is down by 60 in the last year but that’s just a minor change, a 5 per cent change.
So, I think some of the challenge is a universal one in terms of the modern age, the challenge of alcohol and drugs they lead in to suicide, and depression and anxiety equally lead into substance abuse.
So, what we have to do is to provide the combination of the resources, this is why the headspaces, the telehealth, Head to Health, eheadspace, they’re all so fundamentally important. There are many ways that people can seek help but at the end of the day we have to provide the most number of avenues possible.
From the beginning of next month, you’ll be able to buy codeine products if you have a prescription only. How will you make sure that low income patients who can’t afford a lot of doctor visits, and those who are in isolated areas who don’t have access to specialist pain clinics, for example, aren’t worse off by this change?
This is a change which has come about by decision of the medical community for medical reasons. It was The Advisory Committee on Medicines Scheduling in August of 2015, and again the Committee on Safety of Medicines in March of 2016, which took these decisions unanimously, and involving all of the states and territories.
The reason is because many people were caught on addiction and we are losing over 100 lives a year to over-the-counter prescription of opioids, and we know there’s a global opioid crisis.
So, what we’ve done is we’re working with the strong support of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, the Faculty of Pain Medicine, as well as the College of GPs, and the AMA, ensuring that there are alternatives available, alternatives such as combination paracetamol, ibuprofen that GPs of course will have the capacity to prescribe.
And what’s been critical is that we’ve worked with the medical and pharmaceutical community to ensure that there are alternative drugs. We’ve also seen that the pharmaceutical industry has ensured that these lines are available.
And so, the combination of new medicines of the ability to access through the GPs, it’s a medical decision for medical safety by medical professionals.
Okay, Minister, thank you very much for speaking with AM.
Thanks a lot.