Drug-free depression treatment gets boost from health insurer

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The treatment of depression has been given a boost with a major health insurer funding a non-drug approach to improve symptoms.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) involves the use of a magnetic coil to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.

The non-invasive treatment takes up to 40 minutes and patients need multiple sessions over several weeks.

Professor Colleen Loo said robust evidence showed TMS helped about 50 percent of patients.

“That’s often despite having failed treatment with antidepressant medications and psychological therapy,” UNSW Prof. Loo, a psychiatrist based at Sydney’s Black Dog Institute, told 9NEWS.

Medibank said it will cover the cost of up to 20 sessions for its members as part of a pilot program across the country.

“We’re really excited about this pilot, it’s a real breakthrough, it’s a first in Australia for a private health insurer to fund outpatient TMS,” Dr Andrew Wilson, Medibank’s Group Executive of Healthcare & Strategy, said.

The treatment involves a magnetic coil. (9NEWS)The treatment involves a magnetic coil. (9NEWS)The treatment takes up to 40 minutes and is drug-free. (9NEWS)The treatment takes up to 40 minutes and is drug-free. (9NEWS)

The program will help patients avoid having to be admitted to hospital to access treatment.

Prof. Loo said TMS was not Medicare funded and the cost of treatment was an issue among patients who are eligible.

“It’s really sad when they then say to us, well I just can’t afford it, because you’re probably looking at $3000 to $4000 for a treatment course of TMS,” she said.

The Medibank program will be trialled for a year so it can be evaluated for customer take up.

Dr Loo said it’s a step in the right direction but wider access was needed, given TMS had been established for several years as an effective treatment.

“Because it’s not funded by Medicare, this is a problem,” she said.

More than one million Australians suffer from depression and psychiatry is in the top five most common hospital claims among Medibank customers.

Psychiatry is the most common hospital claim for members aged in their 20s.

“Mental health does impact on young people disproportionately so it’s very important from a mental health perspective that young people get the most effective treatment as quickly as possible,” Dr Wilson said.

“For many people TMS can be a life saving treatment for depression.”

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