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14 September 2023

GPs need greater support to help people with mental health issues

On R U OK Day? the Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) has called on government to give GPs and practice teams a helping hand treating people with mental health issues.

It comes ahead of the World Organization of National Colleges, Academies and Academic Associations of General Practitioners/Family Physicians, or WONCA, world conference in Sydney from 26 to 29 October 2023. WONCA will include a series of informative presentations on mental healthcare including:

  • how to best identify and treat people experiencing eating disorders

  • evaluating the psychological deficits associated with long COVID

  • using art to help people with anxiety

  • group cognitive behavioural therapy for managing stress in healthcare workers.

There will also be pre-conference workshops on 25 October concerning psychological medicine and caring for caregivers. You can register to attend WONCA and the pre-conference workshops here.

Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Group on Psychological Medicine, Dr Cathy Andronis, encouraged GPs from Australia and around the world to attend WONCA 2023.

“This is a conference not to be missed,” she said.

“There are some outstanding presentations from international experts on a range of issues relating to mental healthcare and how best to help people experiencing mental health challenges. I encourage all GPs to sign up and attend this year’s conference in Sydney, I can guarantee that you will not regret it.”

Dr Andronis said that R U OK Day? is another reminder of the importance of boosting mental healthcare.

“More must be done to boost mental healthcare outcomes across Australia,” she said.

“This includes government properly recognising the central role GPs play as the most accessible part of the mental healthcare system. GPs do a wonderful job managing patients with mental health issues and this is often not recognised as we keep people out of hospital.

“We are often the first person patients turn to when discussing their mental health and sometimes the only healthcare professional caring for those in the ‘missing middle’. This is particularly the case outside of major cities where access to psychologists and psychiatrists can prove very challenging, if not impossible.

“This year’s Budget included a series of measures, including a new Medicare item for longer GP consults of an hour plus, that will be particularly beneficial for people with mental health issues. That was a positive step forward, but let’s not stop there. Increasing Medicare patient rebates for Level C items, which last more than 20 minutes, and Level D items, which lasts at least 40 minutes, would make a tremendous difference. That is because one of the main issues for mental health services in general practice is how long they take to do properly. You can’t rush through a patient talking about complex mental health issues.

“Patients can often present for one condition and then during the consultation talk about concerns they have with their mental health. It’s becoming commonplace for GPs to be treating a patient’s mental and physical health within the same consultation, and that takes time. We need to change the Medicare rebate structure to help GPs get to the bottom of what is really going on. Asking ‘are you okay’ is only the first step of caring; following this up with compassion and expertise often necessitates a lengthy consult to meet the patient’s needs sensitively. After all, quality care takes time. 

“We have come such a long way in Australia in treating people with mental health issues and R U OK day? is another reminder that we still have room for improvement. If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, please remember that your GP is there to help. Reaching out and booking a consult to discuss what is on your mind could be one of the best decisions you ever made.”

Hosted by the RACGP, WONCA is not a conference to be missed. Themed, “Recovery, reconnection, and revival. A celebration of primary care," it will include more than 800 presentations and workshops from over 700 local and international presenters from around the world. WONCA will feature over 50 streams, covering a range of issues being faced by GPs including mental health, women’s health, climate change, rural practice, and more.

Media enquiries

Journalists and media outlets seeking comment and information from the RACGP can contact John Ronan, Ally Francis and Stuart Winthrope via: