Psychiatrists at the Montreal General Hospital want their emergency room back

·2 min read

Some psychiatrists at the Montreal General Hospital say lives could be at risk if their unit does not get its emergency room back.

Eight months ago, in anticipation of an overflow of COVID-19 patients, the Mcgill University Health Centre set up individual negative pressure rooms in the area, but psychiatrists at the General say the surge in hospitalizations there never materialized.

They've written a letter to the MUHC's administrators, stressing that the space would be more useful for their patients, who often experience severe mental health crises.

"The types of patients that come into this unit are people who are acutely despairing and suicidal, people who are hallucinating and very fearful because of the voices that are talking to them," Dr. Karine J. Igartua, the head of Quebec's association of psychiatric physicians, told CBC Daybreak's Mike Finnerty on Tuesday.

Igartua, who also practices at the MUHC, says the unit's emergency room is equipped with trained staff and safety features that are proven to help defuse volatile situations: natural lighting, the colour paint on the walls, and ligature-resistant door handles, clothes hooks and locks.

She recalled a recent situation during which a patient with homicidal ideas and an axe in his car had been admitted into an open area, and then left the hospital without staff noticing.

In her estimation, a failure to reopen the psychiatric emergency room amounts to discrimination against its patients.

"These people all need a safe and therapeutic environment so that we're not just warehousing them until we can get them into some other treatment facility," she added.

Infection control still a priority, MUHC says

Iguarta says the MUHC's response to the letter has been underwhelming, giving her the impression that administrators do not fully understand what emergency psychiatric interventions entail.

"We're really forgetting that people die of things other than COVID," she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the MUHC told CBC that infection control remains a priority, and it found a compromise last summer to accommodate both psychiatric and COVID-19 patients in the unit's 14 rooms, "all in a so-called 'flex' mode depending on patient volume."

The short-stay psychiatric unit is located next to the hospital's general emergency department, making it an ideal area to welcome COVID-19 patients while limiting the spread of the virus within the hospital, according to the spokesperson.