Cape Bretoners seeking help for mental health issues are now able to get the care they need from a team set up specifically to provide it virtually.
The plan was in the works before COVID-19 was detected mid-March in Nova Scotia, but the pandemic allowed the provincial health authority to launch the initiative this past fall, ahead of schedule.
"We used the opportunity to move things forward at an increased pace," said Dr. Andrew Harris, one of the two people who spearheaded the effort.
The team was created using funds set aside for vacant and hard-to-fill positions across the province, particularly in rural areas.
Sam Hodder, senior director of mental health and addictions, spoke of the progress being made as part of a presentation Wednesday to the legislature's public accounts committee.
The all-party committee was following up on a 2017 auditor general's report that found Nova Scotia did not have a provincewide plan or consistent policies related to mental health.
While the virtual care team has clinicians representing different zones in the province, Hodder told the committee the team is largely focused on providing care to patients on Cape Breton Island who face the longest wait times in the province.
Between July 1 and Sept. 30 of last year, wait times for non-urgent mental health care ranged from an average of a week at clinics at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro to 2½ months at clinics in industrial Cape Breton, according to the latest provincial figures.
Pandemic forced need for virtual services
Hodder said plans for virtual care were well established before the province declared the state of emergency, forcing hospital clinics to close and many health services to be curtailed.
"Within a week to two weeks, we started to offer [virtual] services," said Hodder, who recognized this kind of care could make a difference to patients in Cape Breton where some mental health positions have been hard to fill.
The team consists of eight clinical therapists whose hours are the equivalent of six full-time positions.
"It's not to replace in-person services or not to replace having clinicians in the local community," said Hodder. "But it essentially gives us a level of flexibility across the province to be able to, where there is access challenges, to be able to go where the need is."
Dozen clinicians hired, more to come
She said the province has been able to hire a dozen more mental health clinicians to work in Cape Breton — six who work with adults and another six who deal with children. Health officials are looking to recruit another 23 full-time equivalent positions for the region.
Doctors outside the region who are not part of the virtual care team have also taken on dozens of patients to help virtually.
Dr. Kevin Orrell, the province's deputy health minister, told the public accounts committee that there has been "considerable progress" in Nova Scotia in the three years since the auditor general's report was released.
Maureen Wheller, a spokesperson for the province's mental health and addictions program, said in an email that more than 300 adults and children were contacted last spring and summer and given earlier appointments.
There is currently no wait list, she said.
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