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Medicare should fund general practice psychologists

By Stephen Leeder - posted Friday, 10 February 2006

Today’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments will have health care high on its agenda. The NSW and Victorian Governments will take a $500 million healthcare reform package to the meeting in Canberra. The way we care for patients with serious and continuing chronic disorders needs to change and this package may help.

Like parents of children in a blended family, COAG members will seek ways to harmonise care that comes from different origins - hospitals, both private and public, community-based services including general practice, multiple professions, non-hospital specialty services and pharmaceutical benefits.

This is especially critical for the care of people with mental illness.


The new patterns of care demand flexibility and tolerance from COAG. They will require generosity of spirit among health professionals expressed as a willingness to work more closely together across professions.

On the COAG table will also be the report of the Productivity Commission on the health workforce. The report is critical of the tight preserve many health professions exercise over their territory. It acknowledges the value of maintaining clear professions that complement each other and does not advocate training generalists who have no professional heritage. But with too few people to do the work, it needs to be shared among professions better than at present.

For decades publicly funded aged care in Australia has demonstrated how health professionals of different persuasions - doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists - can work effectively together in teams.

But in the private sector, of which general practice is the largest component, collaboration is not so easily achieved unless paid for by the patient and their health fund.

But there are encouraging signs of change. Treatment studies in several hundred general practices have shown how mental health care can be shared between professions to good effect. Since 2001 federally funded treatment trials of collaborative care between general practitioners and primary care psychologists with certified skills have helped patients with common disorders including depression and anxiety.

More than 25,000 patients have received publicly funded treatment with success rates about 90 per cent. Treatment is short-term - up to six sessions, with six more if needed. The average treatment consists of four visits at a cost of $400.


Helen, a 37-year-old teacher and mother of two children, was referred by her GP to the local primary care psychologist for a severe panic disorder. Her first attack came out of the blue at a family party and led to her admission to hospital. She experienced severe palpitations, causing concern about a heart condition, but tests were negative.

While on extended sick leave from work, her GP referred her for four sessions of treatment from a clinical psychologist. She gained an understanding of the symptoms of panic and learned to recognise and counteract the signs of stress contributing to her attacks.

A long lead-up of cumulative distress and tension, including bereavement and financial pressures, had led to her condition, and this was explored. She was taught techniques to manage stress more effectively, to balance commitments and to set limits on demands. She had planned to quit her job but she returned to work within weeks. She received four treatments over two months and had two follow-up sessions.

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First published in The Australian on February 8, 2006.

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About the Author

Stephen Leeder is professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Sydney, and co-director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy.

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