A website tracking wait times for mental health treatment in Nova Scotia has been updated for the first time in more than a year, but the data doesn’t yet show whether the situation is getting better or worse.
For the first time, wait time collection has been standardized across the province, said Patryk Simon, provincial manager of mental health and addictions intake registration and reporting with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
It means wait times are now measured from when a patient presents to when they first meet with someone for care, whether that’s a therapist, nurse, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.
That data is audited weekly and is integrated to include both mental health and addictions, because patients often need help with both, Simon said.
Previous wait times were not collected the same way in different parts of the province, which was one reason the wait times website hadn’t been updated since September 2017.
“The one big piece that is different in terms of the data that we’re collecting now versus the data that we had collected previously is that we are actually more confident in the data that we have published,” Simon said.
That means the new wait times are more accurate, but they can’t be compared to older ones.
Lydia McIsaac, interim manager of intake, urgent care and community supports in Cape Breton, said changes in patient care and how people are treated while on the wait list are having a positive effect.
For example, she said, people are now contacted while they’re waiting, so if there’s a change in their status from non-urgent to urgent, or vice versa, they can get appropriate help.
According to the old data, most adults in Cape Breton faced a non-urgent wait time of 363 days for mental health services. Under the new measures, that wait time is now 210 days.
Children and adolescents used to face a wait time of 157 days in Cape Breton, but that number is down to 80.
The provincial standard in either case is 28 days.
Urgent care in the eastern zone, which includes Cape Breton, is much closer to the provincial standard, with child and adolescent wait times meeting the seven-day target, while adults are currently waiting nine days.
‘Room to improve’
McIsaac said more work is needed.
“There is room to improve and we’re trying to hit our benchmark of seven days for urgent and 28 days for non-urgent,” she said.
The Cape Breton region has been hit hard by a shortage of psychiatrists. The region used to have 16, but this fall was down to four, and none is a child and adolescent specialist.
It seems counterintuitive that mental health wait times could improve in a region that is losing psychiatrists, but McIsaac said the two aren’t necessarily connected.
First, she said, the old and new wait times aren’t directly comparable.
In addition, new treatment protocols such as contacting people on the wait list mean some patients are getting to see a clinician sooner.
“A psychiatrist is part of the multi-disciplinary team,” said McIsaac. “Therapy begins … when they meet a clinician.”
New data will be posted four times a year, with the next update scheduled for February, said Simon.
In all cases, according to officials, patients needing emergency mental health and addictions care do not go on a waiting list.
If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia’s Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at 1-888-429-8167 or 902-429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also go to the nearest hospital emergency room.