Ballarat's GPs had their work cut out for them during the pandemic with COVID concerns added to the regular medical issues they deal with, and the rise of telehealth consultations proving both a blessing and a curse depending on the situation.
But, according to one Lucas GP, the increase in patients with mental health concerns has proved a growing headache for local health providers, with a big shortage in psychological and psychiatric services to deal with the rise of people needing treatment.
Lucas Q1 Medical Centre GP Dr Mohammed Al Naima said mental health, vaccination confusion and weight gain contributing to other medical conditions were some of the most common reasons he was seeing patients in addition to regular health concerns.
"It's not been a pleasant 18 months, very stressful for a lot of people especially those who have little kids," he said.
"I've seen a big impact on mental health with people at home and kids doing home school with no social interaction with colleagues or classmates. Many people without mental health issues ended up with anxiety and depression, and people with existing mental health issues suffered even more."
Changing advice on vaccines and vaccination led to confusion for many, as did the rapid pace of vaccine development.
"A lot of people are confused, we have to try to absorb the shock of the confusion from people and try to explain it to them," Dr Al Naima said. "And there is concern in the community about possible side effects from the vaccine and what will happen after four or five years - people think vaccines have been developed in a short period of time and are worried about the long term consequences."
Despite the increasing numbers of patients presenting with mental illness requiring treatment, Dr Al Naima said there was a vast shortage of psychological and psychiatric services in Ballarat.
"We provide a lot of TLC and supportive measures and refer to a psychologist or psychiatrist, but those services in Ballarat are fully booked and I have patients who can't make an appointment until September or October, if clinics are even accepting new patients," he said.
"They need urgent health so we have been trying to find psychological or psychiatric services further afield in Colac, Geelong or other areas around."
The problem is even more severe finding psychologists or psychiatrists who see children.
Dr Al Naima said telehealth services could help in the mental health sector, but were not suitable for everyone.
He himself has increased his use of telehealth consultations over the past 18 months and while it's helpful for people with basic issues like referrals, prescription repeats or regular chronic pain patients, and initial screening of people with flu-like symptoms who might then be asked to get a COVID test before coming in to the clinic, it was not for everyone.
"Not everything can be sorted on the phone, especially mental health where a lot of assessment is body language, or they can't express themselves particularly well," Dr Al Naima said.
"Or sometimes people will tell me they have asthma, but it's a chest infection and you can't tell over the phone."
But telehealth has been a benefit for some of Dr Al Naima's patients, many elderly, who live in country communities including Skipton and Beaufort.
"If I know them and their history, sometimes it's easier to explain what's going on and fix their health issues over the phone, but not in every case."