Thunder Bay hospital plans to redesign emergency department for mental health patients, seeks funding

Patients seeking mental health care in northwestern Ontario could soon see a new emergency department specifically dedicated to mental health and substance use services at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

There were 6300 emergency department visits last year relating to mental health and substance use

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre is in the midst of planning for a redesign of their emergency department, in order to cater to the growing number of mental health and substance-use patients in northwestern Ontario. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Patients seeking mental health care in northwestern Ontario could soon see a new emergency department specifically dedicated to mental health and substance use services at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

"We've recognized for quite some time that our ability to meet the needs of the population in northwestern Ontario with respect to mental health and substance use, really doesn't meet the standards in mental health emergency" care,  said Peter Voros, the hospital's executive vice-president of in-patient programs.

He said there were 6300 emergency department visits related to mental health and substance use in 2017, which is the "second busiest number of visits in the province, second only to the Toronto Central LHIN (Local Health Integration Network)."

The current emergency department at the Thunder Bay hospital was not built to provide the kind of care people with mental health issues require, which is why staff at the hospital are in the midst of planning a redesign of their emergency department in order to serve the growing number of mental health and substance use patients.

"When you are in a mental health crisis, you really need an environment that's calm and quiet to help the mental health crisis subside and to allow the staff to accurately assess what's going on," Voros explained.

You really need an environment that's calm and quiet to help the mental health crisis subside.- Peter Voros , executive vice-president of in-patient programs

He said the current design of the emergency department does not allow mental health patients to comfortably and confidently tell their situation to hospital staff. 

In addition, Voros said not all patients require hospitalization, which is why the new mental health emergency department will also feature a stabilization unit where patients can stay up to 48 hours under supervision before being released.

"The project that we are looking at really will design two spaces," Voros explained, "it will redesign a space in the emergency room and a stabilization unit that will allow people to stay a little bit longer but not fully be admitted to hospital."

He said a preliminary architectural design is already in place and a meeting is expected to be scheduled this summer with the North West LHIN to talk about operational and capital funding.

"We need operating dollars because operating a space like this and providing the care that these patients need, requires a different type of staff," Voros said.

"So we will be asking them for operational dollars and talking with them around the process of getting the capital dollars to do the renovations."

He said once funding is secured, construction can begin and is expected to take approximately six months to a year to complete.