Whitby’s Ontario Shores fighting for psychiatric emergency room

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Published February 8, 2023 at 3:56 pm

Whitby’s Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences continues to work toward the establishment of a psychiatric emergency room, which would be a Canadian first.

Ontario Shores is Durham Region’s mecca for mental health care. and one of four mental health hospitals in the province. It’s a public teaching hospital with nearly 350 beds and more than 90,000 outpatient visits a year, with a particular focus on treating complex mental health afflictions.

The hospital hopes to create an Emergency Psychiatric Assessment Treatment and Healing (EmPATH) unit on site. An EmPATH unit is an alternative to traditional emergency departments focused on helping patients suffering mental health crises.

Ontario Shores has been working toward the establishment of an EmPATH unit for years, and provided an update on their progress to the Durham Regional Police Board in a meeting on Jan. 25. Ontario Shores and the legal system work closely as the hospital provides court-ordered assessments and treatment in forensic psychology.

Ontario Shores’ Chief of Communications and Patient Experience Andrea Marshall outlined the need for the unit given the rapid rise of demand for mental health services, calling it an “all-time high.” Police have also seen this increase, reporting a 77 per cent rise in apprehensions under the Mental Health Act in 2021.

Per Marshall’s report, traditional emergency rooms are ill-suited for dealing with mental health crises, particularly as they now face “over-crowding, lack of resources, and, in the case of mental health, staff who aren’t always trained or comfortable caring for people in crisis.”

Meanwhile, Marshall said, the number of people seeking emergency mental health care has risen 61 per cent over the last two years.

“The noise and activity in an emergency department can be triggering for people experiencing a mental health crisis exacerbating the problem,” Marshall said.

Dr. Phil Klassen, Vice-President of Medical Affairs at Ontario Shores, agreed and told the Board in Dec. 2021 that “patient experiences are poor, wait times are long and people don’t get treatment.”

Often this results in a process known as ‘psychiatric boarding,’ or the offloading of a mental health patient into an unsuitable treatment facility because there are no beds to provide the needed services.

To solve this problem, Ontario Shores has turned to the EmPATH model, already proven successful in 20 units throughout the United States.

Unlike a traditional ER, EmPATH units provides immediate psychological assessment followed by immediate psychiatric and pharmacological treatment. Health care workers have a set 24 hours to to decide whether to admit the patient. According to Marshall most mental health crises can be resolved within the 24 hour period “with prompt intervention.”

In the meantime, patients stay together in an open common area, resting in recliners instead of traditionally defined hospital rooms. According to Klassen’s report this “reduces agitation and promotes service user choice, autonomy, dignity and shared decision making.”

Ontario Shores also crunched the numbers and found an EmPATH unit would save the current system $10.7 million through reduced pressure on first-responders, reducing admissions to traditional hospitals and diverting some 10,000 patients to Ontario Shores for intervention and follow-up care.

The hospital has applied for a funding grant from the province to make an EmPATH unit. They are requesting between $800,000 and $1.5 million to get the process underway. In total, Ontario Shores projects an overall cost of $15o million to bring the unit to completion.

Marshall told Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter the project is seeing “great support” from local MPPs in regards to the projects. Her next stop after leaving the Board was a meeting with Health Minister Health Sylvia Jones and Minister of Addictions Michael Tibollo at the hospital prior to an announcement the following day.

Carter was on board and bluntly asked Marshall what Oshawa can do to expedite the process. “What do you need from us in regard to supporting this because, I’ll be very frank with you, I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Marshall requested letters of support from Durham’s municipal leaders to send to Ontario Ministers such as Jones, Pickering-Uxbridge MPP and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy and Premier Doug Ford. She added Whitby MPP Lorne Coe had been a “good advocate” for the EmPATH unit.

Carter forwarded a motion to write the support letter up for Marshall in support of the unit, seconded by Clarington Councillor Willie Woo.

Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, elected chair of the police board that very meeting, said, “I think this is something we absolutely need to be championing and I would be happy to pen a letter to the province.”

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