PEI

After Unit 9 psychiatrist leaves, Health PEI looks to expand tele-psychiatry

Health PEI says it's planning to expand the use of tele-psychiatry to provide "interim assistance" once a key psychiatric position becomes vacant next month.

Move in Unit 9 at Queen Elizabeth Hospital would be an interim measure, agency says

Health PEI says on Dec. 9 the psychiatrist working in Unit 9, the psychiatric unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, left their position. (CBC )

Health PEI says it's planning to expand the use of tele-psychiatry to provide "interim assistance" once a key psychiatric position becomes vacant next month.

The agency says on Dec. 9 the psychiatrist working in Unit 9, the psychiatric unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, left their position.

It's being filled on a temporary basis by a psychiatrist working as a locum, but that physician is set to leave Jan. 16.

"We have been working diligently to secure longer-term psychiatry coverage for Unit 9," a spokesperson for Health PEI told CBC via email. 

"We continue to identify potential candidates and conduct interviews when interested candidates are identified."

As an interim measure, the agency said it's planning "to expand the use of tele-psychiatry to adult inpatients, similar to what we have been doing with the use of tele-psychiatry for adolescent inpatients on Unit 9 for the past two years."

Opposition calls situation 'worrisome'

The agency said it hadn't yet been determined who might provide those psychiatric services via internet link-up, but that it could be done using individual physicians working on contract, as has been done so far with adolescent patients. Or the agency said services could be secured using a private company.

Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker said it was "worrisome" that government appears to have made little progress dealing with a shortage of psychiatrists since the problem was explored by a legislative committee in 2017.

'Professionals who have come here, who have been recruited, and sometimes very shortly afterwards are fleeing the province because they can't tolerate the bureaucratic headaches that they have to put up with here,' says Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker. (Ken Linton/CBC)

He thinks the province has "huge problems" retaining all kinds of health-care professionals.

"I've spoken to so many of them over the years," he said. "Professionals who have come here, who have been recruited, and sometimes very shortly afterwards are fleeing the province because they can't tolerate the bureaucratic headaches that they have to put up with here."

Bevan-Baker thinks the province should conduct exit interviews with health-care professionals who leave to find out what factored into their decision.

Liberal mental-health critic Heath MacDonald said Health PEI should be more forthcoming informing the public about staffing shortages like this and what the plans are to deal with them.

"It's so important to ensure that the public is aware of the situation," he said. "And then maybe they understand better, maybe there's a different recourse for people that are going to require psychiatric care over the Christmas season."

Over 1,000 patients waiting to see psychiatrists

CBC asked to speak with Minister of Health and Wellness James Aylward, or with someone from Health PEI about the situation, but no one was made available.

While he was the opposition health critic, Aylward described the practice of tele-psychiatry for youth that began under the Liberals as "deplorable."

The measure was introduced to deal with a shortage of child psychiatrists.

"Modern technology is great. But having a child psychiatrist face-to-face in the same room with a child who's experiencing mental-health issues, there's no alternative for that," Aylward told the media after raising the issue during question period in April 2017.

Currently, the position is being filled on a temporary basis by a psychiatrist working as a locum, but that physician is set to leave Jan. 16. (CBC)

In one of his first actions as health minister, in July 2019, Aylward told the legislature he had written to the province's physician resource planning committee, seeking the committee's approval for 5.8 new positions for Island psychiatrists, an increase of more than one-third of the complement of 15 at the time.

There was no update provided by Health PEI Wednesday on that request, nor was information provided on how many psychiatric positions are currently vacant. During the fall sitting of the legislature Aylward said funding for the positions had still not been approved.

In July, Health PEI said more than 1,000 patients who had been referred to a psychiatrist were still waiting to see one. Aylward said at the time patients who were being referred were being scheduled for appointments into 2020.

"I'm extremely disappointed. I don't think it's acceptable," he said. "We're taking measures to address this serious issue."

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