Telepsychiatry – Bringing Mental Health Care to Remote Communities

Awareness about the prevalence of mental health issues in Canada is on the rise. This is an important topic that affects individuals, their families, friends and communities. In this post, I wanted to talk about some innovative care being pioneered in the Northwest Territories.

Canada’s northern region faces some of the most challenging and complex mental health and social issues in the country. The statistics are startling. Higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, higher crime and suicide rates are some of the main challenges our northern communities face.

Delivering mental health services in the NorthwestTerritories is critical and also difficult to do, in part because of geography and demographics. While half of the population lives in Yellowknife, the rest are distributed throughout 32 remote communities that span vast distances. In recent years, specialized mental health care was provided by locum psychiatrists who regularly traveled to Yellowknife and across hundreds of kilometres of isolated terrain to work with people in their communities. What was missing was the ability to stay connected to patients, follow-up with them, and ensure they had access to the same psychiatrist with each appointment.

Today this is beginning to change because of the work of some pioneering healthcare leaders – from the Territories and from Dalhousie University – who are rallying together to implement telepsychiatry.

Yellowknife’s Dr. Ewan Affleck is known as an EMR pioneer and was recruited to lead the EMR implementation on the project.

But first, what is telepsychiatry? In a nutshell, it marries electronic medical records (EMR) technology with video conferencing. So, a psychiatrist working from their home-base office in Halifax can access their patient’s chart through remote access to the Northwest Territories EMR system. They also have video conferencing technology set up. Meanwhile, in Yellowknife, their patient arrives for a follow-up appointment and is shown into a room that is set up for video-conferencing. The doctor meets virtually with the patient through video conference and also communicates directly with the local primary care provider by updating the patient’s chart through the EMR platform.

Putting a new mode of delivering care in place can be complex and one of the inspiring things that strikes me about this story is the grassroots way that this all came about. It started with a simple conversation between the head of Dalhousie University’s Department of Psychiatry and a colleague who was familiar with the challenges faced in the North. From there, a strategic partnership was forged with the Stanton Territorial Health Authority, the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority and the Government of NWT.

Together, the Dalhousie-Yellowknife groups are working together to make it possible to deliver care closer to the community and more cost effectively. Mental health services could eventually reach people in remote communities who would otherwise have to wait up to three months to see a psychiatrist, travel 800 kilometres to see someone in Yellowknife, or have no access to services at all.

TELUS Health is proud that our EMR system is part of this innovative care model. In addition, until May 6, 2014, we’re proud to contribute $25 on behalf of every new wireless customer who purchases a smartphone in the Northwest Territories to the Stanton Territorial Hospital Foundation.

Brendan Byrne is Vice-President, of TELUS Physician Solutions for TELUS Health.