Psychologists and medical practitioners - working together

Medical practitioners often find themselves providing a primary counselling service to patients. Many enjoy this aspect of their work, but most GPs choose to refer to psychologists if time-consuming or complex issues arise. This is increasingly the case as health care policy shifts towards community-based service, resulting in more GPs seeing patients with mental health problems.

Psychologists are experts in human behaviour, and have studied the brain, memory, learning and human development. They have also studied how people think, feel, behave and react, and can help you cope with difficult situations.

APS psychologists are highly qualified. Many spend between six and eight years at university to obtain higher degrees. Read about qualifications of APS psychologists. Many pursue further studies in specialist areas ranging from head injury to health promotion. Read about specialist psychologist areas.

Consulting an APS psychologist ensures that patients receive the highest quality psychological services available.

When to refer

Medical practitioners may refer patients to a psychologist for:

  • Phobias and anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Stress and managing emotions, such as anger
  • Suicidal behaviour
  • Assessment for educational, legal or diagnostic purposes
  • Assessment and management of neuropsychological conditions
  • Rehabilitation, including pain management and life planning
  • Psychosomatic disorders and medical conditions responsive to psychological treatment
  • Parents requiring help with children's behavioural and emotional problems.
  • Families, couples and children with relationship problems; couples wishing to enhance their relationship
  • People adjusting to major life events and transitions such as pregnancy and childbirth, marriage, separation and divorce, ageing, retirement and death.
  • Issues of personal development and lifestyle management.
  • Career and employment issues, such as vocational assessment and planning, redundancy and retirement.

Read about common reasons why people see psychologists.

How to refer

The way medical practitioners refer may affect the success of the psychologist's involvement. Here are some suggestions:

  • Openly discuss the reasons for the referral with the patient, and their family or carer if appropriate.
  • Generally, patients should make their own appointments.
  • However, practitioners may make appointments in some cases by contacting the psychologist to discuss the referral, or writing a referral letter. Information that is helpful includes:
     - Reason for the referral (if it is for opinion or management)
     - Treatment history
     - Medication
     - Any relevant medical or social history.

The APS provides a free Psychologist Referral Service to assist medical practitioners.

After referring

The psychologist should send an opinion and management plan soon after the initial assessment.The amount of ongoing contact between the medical practitioner, the psychologist, and the patient varies depending on the treatment required.

A couple of examples:

  • The patient may start seeing the psychologist frequently, in which case the practitioner and psychologist may consult occasionally during and at the end of the treatment in regard to progress and appropriate medication; or
  • A medical practitioner may want to improve a patient's lifestyle, such as weight and exercise management for hypertensive patients. This would result in frequent contact between the practitioner and psychologist, with only occasional contact between the psychologist and the patient.

Information for patients

Some information to help prepare patients who are unfamiliar with psychologists:

  • Appointments usually last between 45 minutes to one hour. Sessions may be longer for certain kinds of treatment and psychological testing.
  • The first appointment will usually involve talking about the problem and some initial treatment planning, which will be discussed with the patient and/or family if appropriate.
  • Patients should expect the psychologist to estimate the number of sessions and the type of therapy that is likely to lead to an effective outcome for their problem. It is important that patients understand the relevance of their treatment plan and raise any issues they wish to clarify.
  • Psychologists are trained to use a wide range of assessment and therapeutic strategies. The reason for referral and the psychologist's theoretical orientation (way of working) will determine the content of the sessions, which may include discussion, testing, behavioural tasks, or other relevant activities. Patients will sometimes be asked to do assignments between visits and family may also be involved in sessions.
  • Typically, patients need only four to ten sessions with a psychologist, because of the effectiveness of short-term treatment. Occasionally a single session will be sufficient to provide patients with appropriate and useful information. Some psychologists practise on a long-term basis and some patients require long-term support.