Opinion

Latimer: Better access to psychiatric services in Okanagan needed

If you have tried to get a referral to see a psychiatrist in recent years, you may not be surprised to learn that it can be difficult.

In our region there are currently no psychiatrists accepting new patients while the wait time for an appointment is typically greater than six months.

Across Canada, access to psychiatric services is proving to be an issue of concern.

The most recent National Physician Survey had most Canadian family physicians rating access to psychiatrists as poor—worse than all other specialists addressed in that survey.

Last year, a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry showed that this problem of access is indeed a problem in a B.C. urban setting.

In this study, an adult male patient with depression was referred for psychiatric assessment by a family physician. Calls were made to almost 300 psychiatrists in Vancouver to determine wait times and availability for this kind of referral.

The results of this attempt show a system in need of serious change if we are to provide required services to the population.

Of the 297 psychiatrists who were called, the researchers successfully contacted 230—and 70 per cent of those contacted indicated they were unable to accept the referral.

The remaining 30 per cent who would consider the referral could not give estimates of their wait times and required detailed written referral information before accepting the patient.

Only six psychiatrists offered immediate appointment times with wait times ranging from four to 55 days.

With this information, researchers concluded that substantial barriers exist for family physicians attempting to refer patients for psychiatric help.

They recommend efforts to consolidate and improve access to psychiatric assessment.

Since family physicians are in short supply, they are often extremely busy and may not have the time to do an exhaustive search such as this for the best psychiatric access.

More and more, patients need to be proactive and do their own legwork in this regard.

This isn’t always easy for someone in the midst of a mental illness.

Here in the Okanagan, we have a central intake program designed to direct family physician referrals to the most appropriate mental health resources.

Although some mental health services require all referrals to come through the central program, there are others that can be contacted directly by the client.

You may contact a psychiatrist directly and can certainly call to ask about availability, however, psychiatric care is only fully covered under MSP if you are referred by another physician.

If you would like an immediate psychiatric assessment and are having difficulty getting a referral, you might consider looking into what clinical trials are currently taking place in the community.

If you meet the criteria for an ongoing study, there are generally no waitlists and there is never any cost to you.

In an effort to ease some of the pressure in our local area, I have opened a psychiatric walk-in clinic, which takes place every Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This is not intended for medico-legal or third party assessments.

It is also not intended for those in need of hospital admission. If you are in acute crisis, you should go to the hospital emergency department for immediate help and support.

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