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‘Video psych’ system slammed

Friday, 2nd December, 2011

By Erica Visser

People who go to the hospital after hours for mental health emergency care are having to be assessed via video from Orange before they can be admitted. 

A relative of a patient who used the service a few weeks ago told the BDT this procedure was “disturbing” and could put some people at risk of suicide.

“A member of my family considered another relative to be in a potentially suicidal frame of mind and made a phone call to seek the advice of a...private counsellor who recommended she be taken to the hospital.

“There is no doubt that you would have been as upset as my family and I were if one of your close acquaintances had been subjected to this ridiculous process that is more likely to push an at-risk patient over the edge, all in the name of lack of beds or personnel.

“The whole system of having to talk through a computer link to a stranger who is geographically distant is a sad state of affairs when we’re talking of issues of mental health.”

However, a spokesman for the Health Service has said that the Mental Health Emergency Care Rural Access Program (MHECRAP) had been highly successful since it began in 2008.

“Through the Mental Health Emergency Care Rural Access Program a team of mental health specialists in Orange are available to support mental health staff in Broken Hill and right across western NSW,” the spokesman said.  

“The program was developed to provide the support of specialists in Orange to isolated mental health staff in remote and rural hospital emergency departments across western NSW.  

“Mental health patients can be provided with video-link assessment by 24/7 mental health nursing staff in Orange who are specifically trained and supported by psychiatrists.”

The spokesman said that independent research had shown the program to have a high satisfaction level among staff and patients alike.

But the patient’s relative described their experience with the system as “shambolic and impersonal” because it required the patient to give background details to a local doctor before partaking in the video link which, in this case, went for 75 minutes.

MHECRAP said that the program was put in place to provide a superior service to people in remote areas, after a trend in over-admission of mental health patients.

It said that in many cases admissions were unnecessary and could have been better dealt with using community support.

“In the 15 years to 2005, the admission rate to inpatient psychiatric care in Greater Western AHS more than tripled,” the MHECAP website states.  

But the relative said that she was unsatisfied with the approach of the mental health worker on the video link.

“This woman made no attempt to build any kind of rapport with the patient and very quickly put her on the defensive,” she said.

The relative said that it was difficult to communicate such sensitive issues to someone through a computer and that this type of healthcare was better accessed face-to-face.

The relative also claimed that she and the patient did not know that there was a local mental health worker on call at the time.

“I would urge other Broken Hill residents to consider speaking to their State member of parliament to urge for increased healthcare funding, especially for this particular instance of having to deal with a counsellor in Orange,” she said.

Local MP John Williams said the situation was unfortunate, but was not linked to a lack of funding.

“There is no funding shortage. You only have to go back to the most recent announcement of $3.6 million in local services. We’re trying to improve the care of mental health patients,” Mr Williams said.

“I think the problem is having trouble attracting health professionals. We don’t have enough coming into rural areas.

“Whilst for some people that diagnosis process doesn’t sound like a suitable arrangement, it’s in the best interests of the patient because obviously you need a specialist to recommend what can be done to improve their health.

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