A pilot project in Ottawa teams a doctor with police officers to reduce the number of calls for police that result in people with mental-health concerns either being sent to emergency rooms or being arrested.

The newly formed team is made up of one psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Boyles, and two medical residents who work and ride along with four officers with the Ottawa police mental health unit.

The Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Police Service began the one-year pilot project in July to test whether having a doctor on site would improve situations where police handle mental health issues and whether it would help streamline the process of getting help for patients.

Many police services across the country have mobile health teams that pair police with a nurse or social worker, but the Ottawa unit is believed to be the first where a doctor sits in the cruiser.

When the team responds to a call, the officer has access to police records on a certain address or person, while Boyles has access to a patient's medical records. The pair communicates what they learn before responding, to give them a more complete picture of the patient, but none of that information is documented.

Boyles, who normally works in the emergency room at The Ottawa Hospital, said hospital emergency rooms are overburdened dealing with patients who have mental health concerns.

"There's so much that comes to an emergency room that might be better handled in the community," said Boyles. "So if we could do that at the time, before police arrive, then it sort of changes the trajectory of what's going on that would be better for patients, and families but also for police."

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Normally when police are required to escort someone to hospital, two officers could end up spending from two to as many as eight hours in the emergency room waiting for a doctor to see that person, said Const. Stéphane Quesnel, one of the officers participating in the project.

The officer said a patient needs to be monitored but the long wait times in emergency rooms is difficult.

"It feels like babysitting at a certain point … you're no longer really doing the job of a police officer," said Quesnel, who worries numerous hours accompanying patients lets down his fellow officers.

"It becomes frustrating for the officers and for the patient," he added.

Faster help, fewer emergency room patients

By having a doctor on site when police meet people, the process of getting them help is much quicker, said Boyles.

"One day, we had four calls in a row where forms had been issued that required them to see a doctor and all four of those people did not need to be brought to hospital," said Boyles.

"Some had doctors who I liaised with, some we hooked up with resources that they could carry on getting some help. But I think that day it struck me that this is good for patients, it’s good for the hospital and it’s very good for police and everybody was winning," he said.

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Const. Stéphane Quesnel, left, and Dr. Peter Boyles, right, team up to help improve police response to calls involving mental health concerns. (CBC)

In one instance since the pilot launched, Boyles said he and Quesnel were able to see a person with a severe mental health issue who had barricaded themselves in their home. The two men helped get the person admitted into a hospital in about an hour.

"When we arrived at the scene there were five police cruisers, two paramedics, lots of bodies, and no one really understood [the situation]. They knew the person was ill but didn't understand the illness," the doctor said.

Ottawa police respond to more than 4,000 calls involving the Mental Health Act each year, but they believe there are about 20 times more calls a year with a mental health component.

Ottawa police did not have updated statistics for the program. The force did say, over a 25-day period in October, officers and psychiatrists dealt with approximately 65 calls with only five requiring police to apprehend a person and bring them to the emergency room.

With files from the CBC's Kate Porter