Radio interview with Minister Butler and Sabra Lane, ABC AM - 16 May 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Sabra Lane on mental health; National Early Intervention Service; Medicare Urgent Care Clinics; increasing international doctors in rural areas.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SABRA LANE HOST: The Minister for Health and Aged Care is Mark Butler. Mark Butler, thanks for joining AM.
LANE: Tell us about this new digital health service. How is that going to help people?
BUTLER: It will provide early help to a range of people, but it's primarily targeted at people with relatively mild levels of mental illness, or indeed might just be experiencing temporary distress that's not a diagnosable mental illness because of a life event like a bereavement or a divorce. At times when people just need a bit of support to get back on the rails. It was identified as a real gap in our system by the Productivity Commission's Review of Mental Health a few years ago, and it's quite common overseas.  We'll be building this system, it will provide easily accessible, free, early help to people who need it, but also free up our highly qualified clinical psychologists to focus more on people with more moderate to complex needs.
LANE: Will it be a human on the end of the digital thing, or will it be AI generated and it's not slated to start until January 2026?
BUTLER: That's right, we've got a bit of work to do to design it, to examine the workforce, and to obviously put it out to a competitive tender for an organisation to deliver it, but it will be humans. There's lots of interesting work being done in this space through AI around the world but this is a project that will be delivered by humans. It will be largely online and over the phone, as I said, you'll be able to access it either directly very easily, or through your usual GP.
LANE: By when do you think it'll be helping about 150,000 people a year?
BUTLER: We have to do that work to see really how quickly an organisation can scale it up.  That's the work we'll be doing over the coming 12 months or so.
LANE: Alright, the Government's set up Head to Health centres a couple of years ago that's being extended now to 61 centres and renamed. What is the thinking behind the renaming of it and where will the network expand to, given that, as I understand it, a full evaluation of the initial centres hasn't been complete yet?
BUTLER: That's right, we've rolled out about 20 of the 61 centres. The rebranding is not a big thing in itself. We found that there wasn't much recognition of these centres, so rebranding them as Medicare Mental Health Centres we think will lift their profile. Much more importantly, we're refocusing and extending their work to make sure that they focus really on people with more complex needs. That is really the gap in the system, there really is not enough support out there for people with complex needs. It’ll refocus their work and they’ll also receive extra money to lift their clinical capabilities - their connections with psychiatrists, with psychologists and with GPs as well. I think this investment will give much more meat on the bone really to the work that they’re able to do.
LANE: Does it make sense to expand it in such a big fashion when an evaluation hasn't been done on the 20 centres that are open already?
BUTLER: We're committed to rolling these out progressively. We're in the process now of opening new centres pretty much all the time. The evaluation will continue while we're rolling out the 61 but we don’t want to roll out centres that don’t have a high profile, don’t have the clinical capability we need, and don’t have the focus that’s demanded out there for more support for complex needs.
LANE: But if they're not properly functioning and doing the job that you want them to do, why roll out more?
BUTLER: We always committed to rolling out the full 61, and the evaluation obviously will continue, but we're committed to getting these out into the community, providing more support to people with complex needs. That's in addition to the money we provided in the Budget for more support for GPs who do so much of the frontline work in mental health, they’ll be able to access social workers, mental health nurses and a range of other supports to provide, again, that wrap around care that people with more complex needs really demand.
LANE: New Urgent Care Clinics will be rolled out as well, but some people are already struggling to access the ones that are open. We’ve heard people who’ve turned up for help within two hours of the centres opening that day, and being turned away because their books are already filled for that day?
BUTLER: That's not happening a lot. I hear some of those reports, these are still relatively new centres. Most of them only opened in the second half of last year, but already they have delivered around 400,000 urgent services to Australians. About 1 in 3 of them to kids, really importantly, often on Saturday afternoons after sporting injuries, instead of parents having to take them to the hospital emergency department. They're fully bulk billed, they're very high quality, we're getting terrific feedback. Obviously, we're working with centres where there's a little bit more demand, and that usually happens early in the morning, but by and large, we're getting really good feedback that the capability at the centres is about right for those communities. We're really excited about rolling out another 29 of these centres, which we've been working very hard with state governments to identify.
LANE: There’s $90 million over three years to help bring foreign doctors here. What is the target number? How many doctors do you think are going to come here under that scheme?
BUTLER: We don’t have a particular target number, but foreign doctors, overseas trained doctors, nurses, allied health workers have always been an important part of our broader health workforce. Frankly, particularly in rural and regional communities where we have a little bit more difficulty getting Australian trained professionals working.
LANE: But why no target?
BUTLER: Because that target really is a demand driven thing. It's driven really by state hospital systems who identify particular gaps that they're not able to fill with Australian trained nurses, for example, in theatres. It will flex really up and down depending on the supply of Australian trained doctors and nurses, it's always been that way. What the review that we conducted at the direction of National Cabinet showed was that too many overseas trained doctors and nurses come to Australia and end up sitting in apartments or working in cafes for months while we get through the paperwork to get them onto the floor, doing the work they're trained to do. We're going to make it easier, we're going to make it more attractive, we're going to make it cheaper for overseas trained doctors and nurses to come to Australia and fill some of the real gaps we have in our health care system.
LANE: Mark Butler, as always, thanks for talking to AM.
BUTLER: Thanks, Sabra.
SABRA: Mark Butler is the Minister for Health and Aged Care.

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