Making connections for better rural mental health

Amanda Lyons

17/10/2019 1:59:58 PM

The struggles Megan Gomez saw in her community inspired her to develop a telehealth service so GPs can help patients more easily access psychologists.

Rural Health Connect.
Rural Health Connect has been designed to facilitate better access to psychologists for patients in rural and remote areas.

As a rural journalist reporting on drought, natural disaster and other issues in the country, Megan Gomez could see their adverse effects on her community – particularly in terms of the psychological toll.
‘Going into the homes of families who were under significant amounts of stress, it was clear many were struggling and had nowhere to go for help,’ Ms Gomez told newsGP.
These experiences inspired Ms Gomez and her husband, an orthopaedic surgeon, to create Rural Health Connect, a telehealth platform designed to help GPs better connect people in rural areas to psychologists in consults that can mostly be claimed under Medicare Benefits Schedule items for rural and remote healthcare.
‘Hopefully making it easier [to access psychologists] will mean that people are able to do so more regularly and recover more quickly,’ Ms Gomez said.
Despite the fact that rural Australians have a similar prevalence of mental illness to their metropolitan counterparts, they are far less likely to access psychological services. One of the major reasons is a simple lack of access.  
‘Attending an appointment for many rural Australians means a long drive and significant time away from work or family, which is hard to sustain,’ Ms Gomez said.
Another barrier is the stigma that lingers around mental health issues, which can be further compounded in the country by ‘rural stoicism’, a focus on self-reliance that can delay seeking help.
Yet another obstacle is presented by the smallness of rural communities, which can result in a lack of privacy for country people in seeking mental health care.
Taken together, such barriers have contributed to poorer outcomes in mental health for people in rural and remote areas, including rates of self-harm and suicide that increase with degree of remoteness.
Faced with these challenges, Ms Gomez wanted to find a better way – and her quest led to the utilisation of telehealth technology.
‘Seeing psychologists via our site allows people to get help without significant downtime from driving into town for appointments, and with privacy, which is often not possible in small towns,’ she said.
But while the idea behind Rural Health Connect seems simple, its development has been a complex task.
Rural-health-connect-launch-article.jpgAfter three years in development, the Rural Health Connect platform has been launched to assist GPs, psychologists and their patients.

‘The process of developing this platform was huge. We started three years ago when there was very little around in this area of telehealth,’ Ms Gomez said.
‘We designed it completely from the ground up, and it has ended up taking a lot more time and money than expected.’
In creating the telehealth platform, Ms Gomez made it a priority to ensure that usability would not be a barrier for users – GPs, psychologists and their patients.
‘The site is really easy to use and within a few weeks will work on both computers and phones,’ Ms Gomez explained. ‘We wanted to make sure that even non-technical people could use it without issues or frustrations.
‘Also, our phone number is on the site so people can call us if they run into any technical problems.’
The site’s developers were also mindful of the particular technological issues that can plague rural and remote areas.
‘The video conferencing adapts to poor or variable internet speeds common in rural Australia, so there are less drop-outs,’ Ms Gomez said.
GPs and patients can also be assured that security is a key focus for Rural Health Connect, especially given the sensitive nature of the information they will be sharing via the platform.
‘The system is encrypted from end-to-end and we have a lot of security features,’ Ms Gomez said.
‘If referrals and other documents are faxed to us, our system captures and encrypts them so we can securely send them on to our psychologists in our system. We also have all of our security checked off by an independent third party.’
Ms Gomez understands that services such as Rural Health Connect may seem intimidating, due to their newness. But she is hopeful her platform can help to make a real difference to people in rural and remote communities who are struggling with mental health issues, and that it will also provide greater referral options for their treating GPs.

‘There is a huge need in rural Australia; however, we acknowledge that getting people to take the step to see someone via telehealth, as well as obtaining referrals from GPs, may be challenging. Telehealth is still quite new and until GPs have referred to us once we are still an unknown quantity,’ Ms Gomez said.

‘But I hope they can give us a go. The system is really good and the psychologists we have on board are very passionate. We really hope that it will be well used.’


mental health referrals Rural and remote health Rural Health Connect telehealth

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