BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services has been using virtual health technology for several years, but against the backdrop of COVID-19, we have ramped up our virtual offerings, helping us continue to care for patients and support vital connections between patients, care providers and loved ones.
Our programs are ideally suited to virtual health care because care providers rely so heavily on communicating and relationship-building. According to Kim Korf-Uzan, the director of e-mental health and special projects at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, the pandemic highlighted even more opportunities and new ways of delivering health care.
“For many of our clients, virtual care means more than just consultation with their care provider. It is about helping them on the road to recovery in a more holistic way by connecting them with loved ones and other support systems in the community,” said Vijay Seethapathy, the chief medical officer at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services.
Dr. Vijay Seethapathy, chief medical director of BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services
Kim explained that connecting with family and friends, as well as with community organizations, legal counsel and other groups, is a vital part of client recovery. With travel restrictions in place during the pandemic, visitation to inpatient programs was limited. Our Patient Experience and Community Engagement team worked with Kim and her team to find solutions, such as introducing 22 secure patient tablets equipped with Zoom and FaceTime applications at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital and the Heartwood Centre for Women.
According to Nick Mathew, the medical director of complex mental health and substance use services, “Evidence shows that feeling of connectedness is crucial to well-being, especially when clients are receiving care in one of our treatment facilities for several months.”
“Although the tablets were initially introduced because of the pandemic, said Kim, “it is something we expect will continue long after COVID-19. We serve clients from all across the province, and even when visitors are allowed, some loved ones are not able to visit because they live too far away. These tablets provide a new way for clients to regularly connect with their support systems while they are receiving treatment in our programs. Clients can see inside their homes and be reminded of what they want to get back to after treatment. One client even attended his daughter’s wedding on Zoom – connections above and beyond what we expected.”
Another client, F.V., feels more connected than ever to family, saying "It's easy to use Zoom to connect to all my family at the same time. It's been really moving. I haven't connected with them for 15 years and we really have a close connection now."
Some programs, such as the Forensic Sexual Offense Program, which was established in 2002, have faced logistical issues in remote parts of the province. Virtual technology has helped us better serve this client population.
Led by psychologists, it is delivered as a program of the Regional Forensic Psychiatry Clinics. The program used to need eight to 12 clients for an in-person group, which sometimes made it difficult to care for people in rural and remote areas of B.C. Now, thanks to virtual health technology, approximately 90 clients in the community and in custody have been able to participate in the program recently.
Dr. Martin Zakrzewski, the director of psychology at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, plans to continue using virtual health technology to provide care.
“Development of virtual programming has removed many of the significant geographical barriers to effective and efficient delivery of these vital services,” he said. “Both our psychologist providers and participants have indicated a high level of satisfaction with the virtual program delivery, as have representatives from custody and community corrections.”
Virtual technology helps remove barriers for people even when geography and social distancing aren’t an issue.
“Many of our clients have indicated that being able to join from the comfort and security of their homes has made a big impact and they feel able to participate, contribute, and open up more fully than they would in a face-to-face venue,” said Dr. Evan Lopes, a psychologist with BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. “Clients who have issues with social interactions, social anxiety and similar issues have been able to very successfully complete the program and, at the same time, receive positive feedback and support in a group context, which has been a double benefit.”
Plans are underway to continue expanding virtual care across BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services.
Kim Korf-Uzan, director of e-mental health and special projects at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services
“I’m most excited about the opportunity to reimagine how we deliver care,” said Kim. “`We’re currently working on a virtual and digital health strategy and roadmap for the next five years. We’re looking at how we can solidify our foundational virtual health capacity, as well as exploring opportunities to be truly innovative.
“The digital divide is a very real consideration,” she continued. “We’re working with vulnerable populations who may not always have access to technologies, and we don’t want to implement anything that’s going to further alienate them.”
One example of an attempt to bridge the digital divide is a recent partnership with TELUS, which provided clients with free cellphones and built-in data plans. As a result, clients can now receive text message reminders for appointments or medications. These messages have been shown to help clients stay engaged in their treatment in between visits with their care team.
The opening of the leading-edge Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addiction later this year will create even more opportunities for cross-province virtual connections. The entire facility will be virtually enabled.