New frontiers: adapting to meet the need for mental health care

“The pandemic has touched us all, requiring us to change our lives in significant ways,” says Dr. Susan Abbey, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at University Health Network (UHN). “Everyone has struggled with the increased uncertainty of everyday life and the fast pace of changing scientific and public health advice.”

UHN’s Centre for Mental Health knew it needed to respond to the growing mental health crisis, but the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic meant they had to reconsider how to provide care. “It never ceases to amaze me to see the deep and heartfelt commitment of our UHN Mental Health and Wellness teams,” says Dr. Abbey.

Here are a few ways the Centre for Mental Health is evolving patient care, with the support of UHN donors.

Adapting mental health care for a virtual world

Recognizing the deep need for continued mental health care services at home, the Centre for Mental Health has shifted much of its operations online. A leader in adopting virtual care both within UHN and at a provincial level, the Centre first transitioned its individual psychotherapy appointments virtually before gradually introducing group sessions.

“We moved from emergency response mode into intentional planning,” says Dr. Abbey. She shares that the Centre continues to grapple with some challenges of a virtual model. Concerns such as access to digital devices, technical literacy, and access to a private space for an appointment, must all be addressed and are not always possible for all patients. In some circumstances, virtual mental health care is just not possible and in-person care will remain available.

For many, the shift to virtual care has been a benefit. Fewer geographic restrictions mean broader access to care, and even those patients located close to UHN are more easily able to integrate appointments into their days. “It can also be less daunting for those who struggle with anxiety leaving home,” says Dr. Abbey. “They have the same great access to practitioners online.”

Connecting mental and physical wellness

In addition to adapting some of UHN’s existing mental health programs to virtual systems, the Centre for Mental Health recently opened the Mental Health in Medicine Clinic. The Clinic will support UHN’s efforts to integrate physical and mental wellness across our hospitals. 

“The suffering we see on a daily basis has fueled the call for fundamental changes that advance health for all, and the recognition that physical and mental health are inextricably linked,” says Dr. Abbey.

The Clinic will address the mental health care needs by providing follow up care for those who require it following medical or surgical procedures and those who need mental health care to optimize physical health outcomes.

In addition to offering comprehensive in-person services, the opportunities virtual systems provide have been integrated into the programming. Virtual peer support groups, for patients experiencing similar concerns, will be available.

“We serve such a diverse population,” says Matthew Kelsey, Senior Manager of Transformation and Partnerships at the Centre, “The Mental Health in Medicine Clinic will allow us to normalize the need for psychosocial supports across all disciplines.”

Improving the patient’s health care journey

Beyond adapting to virtual care, other innovations at UHN will support the improvement of patient outcomes. As part of its ongoing digital transformation UHN is implementing a health information system called Epic.

This system will replace more than 40 other applications currently being used at UHN and will help to improve the patient journey by connecting the data from all their health care providers in a single spot. No more repeating information, waiting for information to be input, or disconnects between services

And patients will also be able to have access to their health information, empowering them to be active participants in their own care.

Epic will also allow for patients to complete surveys that track symptom burden over time, giving mental health practitioners a clearer sense of how patients are doing as they head into sessions.

“This kind of measurement-based care is foundational to the patient experience,” explains Matthew. “It means we can really tailor mental health care to individual need rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.”

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