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The optimum model of care for delivering mental health support and care

Virtual care is becoming the “new normal” for treating mental and behavioural health.

More people are using virtual care than ever before (JAMA Tel health volumes during COVID), and healthcare providers are addressing patient needs by using video conferencing and other technologies. The JAMA article here is one of a multitude of evidence sources to attest to this.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was already a strong and growing demand for virtual care, especially in the field of mental health and supporting those with addictions.

The emergence of strict social distancing guidelines only increased the call for more virtual care options. As a result, providers are launching virtual care services for the benefit and convenience of patients struggling with mental health issues.

During a recent virtual meeting of the iFHP Expert Panel on Mental Health, this was seen to have clear benefits as it has been driven and supported well by patients. It additionally offers wider access both in terms of numbers of patients that can be treated and supported and offers consultations to those that might not be able to access care in a clinical setting, perhaps because of age or distance.

However, is there a lack of regulation around the platforms being provided, as a wave of technologies rush to market to entice payers with digital solutions with no clear guidance or industry standard around payment models and consultation protocols?  It could be seen that although there is no physical wound or broken bone there is no need for a face to face, but are we labouring under a fallacy that apps provide a panacea to the growing need for mental health support.

Certainly, the regulatory bodies in Australia have cause for concern regarding the applications and digital services offered with  Tele health guidelines called for and stricter governance. There seems a distinct lack of regulation for mental health virtual care, and across the wider clinical areas.

But if we look at this through the patient centric approach, if the care delivered is more appropriate in terms of clinical setting and assists patients in obtaining easier access  – where, when and with the frequency needed should this be the principal driver and payers need to embrace the new delivery model and simply need to adapt?

Longer term payers need to address the demand for such care. Easier and even on-demand access to virtual care could lead to huge increases in the numbers treated. Clearly there is a patient benefit, but do payers now need to urgently scale up the delivery model and review access guidelines? Whilst still maintaining continuity of care and ensuring a long-term stable programme for patients.

As patients become better informed and empowered to make decisions about the model of care payers that suits their requirements, payers need to be ready with a financially stable and regulatory sound product for what could be a tidal wave of demand in the coming months.