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New virtual health initiative helps mental health care professionals connect with hard-to-reach clients

​As many health care professionals will know, it can be hard to reach outpatient clients who are receiving treatment for mental illness and addiction challenges—especially when they live in remote areas.
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To help mental health and substance use professionals provide even better care and follow-up, BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services and PHSA's Office of Virtual Health have initiated a new virtual health project that is allowing professionals and clients to communicate more effectively via text message.

This hand-to-hand connection is designed help improve communication between care providers and clients, reduce missed appointments and increase clients' engagement with their care.

"This makes it easier for health care professionals to keep in touch," said Kim Korf-Uzan, who oversees virtual health initiatives at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. "This is especially important when working with vulnerable or marginalized populations like ours. Our clients have faced so many barriers to receiving care because of stigma and other factors. This is one of many ways we're working to reduce those barriers and get them the care they need."

New virtual health project enabling more client-centred care

BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services has launched the pilot texting program in two of its program areas: the Regional Forensic Psychiatric Clinics and Community Transition Teams.

The regional clinics help people who have come into conflict with the law and need treatment for mental health and substance use issues. Community Transition Teams serve people with opioid and other substance use disorders who have recently been discharged from one of B.C.'s provincial correctional facilities and need help connecting to treatment and support.

Leaders in both programs explain that the initiative helps them provide more client-centred care.

"This is an exciting and necessary evolution of how we connect with those we serve in a manner in which they are comfortable and familiar," said Angus Monaghan, who oversees the regional clinics. "We have often heard directly from our clients that they would prefer to communicate by text and have asked for a reminder text of their next appointment. We are now able to respond to those requests in a confident and safe way." 

"The ability to text with our clients, particularly those who are younger, is a standard mode of communication in their everyday lives and one that we have now embraced," said Richard Singleton, a regional director with Correctional Health Services. "This only enhances the timely level of care we are able to provide."   

Reducing barriers to health care

The project came to life after both clinic and Correctional Health Services staff voiced a need for more low-barrier options to communicate with their clients—that is, options beyond an in-person meeting or a phone conversation.

                       

In a 2017 survey of clinic clients, over 30 per cent of those who responded said they preferred electronic communication for appointment reminders.

The project was implemented in May 2019, and so far, it seems to be working. Within two months of the project beginning, providers had sent out over 570 messages, and received over 500 messages in return.

Staff have shared that clients are attending appointments more often, and that clients who miss appointments are rebooking more often. According to a mid-point survey, 91 per cent of surveyed clients have no privacy or safety concerns with texting, and would consider continuing to text with their health care provider.

 While texting is hardly a new technology, it's not as easy to implement in a health care setting as one might think. "There are privacy requirements, for example," said Pooja Patel, who worked on the project on behalf of PHSA's Office of Virtual Health. Having addressed those requirements with PHSA's Privacy Office by setting key protocols to help protect clients' personal information, Patel, Korf-Uzan and their colleagues are optimistic about the project expanding.

Project will help grow virtual care for clients and patients across PHSA

The texting project is only a part of a larger long-term strategy to provide more virtual health options to BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services clients and patients over the next five years.

"We're uniquely positioned to lead in this space in part because mental health and substance use care is so different from other areas such as general practice or oncology," said Korf-Uzan. "So much of the care that psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals provide is communication based rather than physical. While being face to face in the same room will always be important in every kind of client care, the nature of mental health work positions us well to quickly expand virtual health opportunities—and in partnership with PHSA's Office for Virtual Health, that's exactly what we're doing. I'm looking forward to the other tools we'll be making available to offer our clients even better care."

"This project is making a significant contribution to the clinical digital messaging initiative that PHSA's Office of Virtual Health is working on to facilitate more efficient communication between patients and clinicians across PHSA," said Michelle Fryer, the director of PHSA's Office of Virtual Health.

 
 
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