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Virtual mental health care valuable for adolescent patients and their families

Staff working with youth in BC Children’s Hospital’s mental health programs quickly pivoted to provide Virtual Health during COVID-19, and found it expanded access and eased the burden of specialized mental health services across B.C. and the Yukon.
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We talked to staff working with adolescents in mental health programs at BC Children’s Hospital about how they made the switch to Virtual Health and how it’s been received by their patients.

For Dr. Trudy Adam and her Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry team, caring for their patients is personal. And this commitment hasn’t wavered since they switched to Virtual Health to minimize patients’ risk of exposure to the virus. 

“Youth receiving Virtual Health have given us tours of their homes, introduced us to siblings and pets, shown us their homework and their hobbies,” says Trudy, medical director, Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry. “They have given us a true picture of where they are from and how they live. It’s been a privilege to come to know these families in such a close fashion that is just not possible in the hospital context.” 

The team provides mental health care for youth 12 to 19 years old experiencing serious complex persistent psychiatric illness, such as psychosis, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and neuropsychiatric disorders. They also assess and treat youth with suicidal or aggressive behaviours where their difficulties involve mental illness. The length of stay can vary from a couple of weeks to a few months, and they see 90 to 120 youth per year.



Enthusiasm for connecting virtually

One of those patients recently invited Trudy to their online graduation. “Thanks for coming to my grad, Dr. – you got all dressed up too!” the patient exclaimed, while carrying the laptop around the room and introducing Trudy to everyone. This underscores the enthusiasm the youth have demonstrated towards connecting virtually – using technology they’re already familiar with like Zoom, Skype or their cell phones.

Parents are appreciative, too. They like the flexibility of seeing team members when they feel they need to, without the need to leave their communities across B.C. and the Yukon. Families have also commented that Virtual Health allowed them to gain momentum in their recovery journeys – instead of avoiding specialized services or viewing them as a last resort. Long hospital stays can be challenging to navigate, even for families living in the Lower Mainland.

“Youth and families usually travel to Vancouver to work with our team, and the youth usually stay in our inpatient unit, while their families stay in the area with extended family, in hotels or in housing provided by Ronald McDonald House or Easter Seals,” explains Trudy. “This can place a great stress on youth and families, as family members can be separated for a time. Travel to Vancouver can also involve further duress, loss of income, and extra financial costs for the family, as they must leave their lives behind in order to obtain highly specialized care.”

Trudy adds that while a hospital stay has not been avoidable for some youth due to the nature of the assessments and treatment being provided, or due to safety concerns, Virtual Health has allowed for significant shortening of the stay. 

Benefits for the team

Transitioning to virtual mental health care has also brought benefits for the Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry team – who, prior to the pandemic, provided occasional short-term psychiatric care via telehealth for those who couldn’t get to Vancouver.

“In our experience over the past few months, the benefits for our team have centred on the flexibility it allows us,” says Trudy. “Virtual Health involves more organization and mindfulness for us in scheduling meetings with family members, so that team members do not double book or overwhelm youth and families. However, it has also allowed more flexibility for us in that we can now do our appointments from the hospital or from the home office.”

The Office of Virtual Health leads and provides strategic direction for the overall Virtual Health initiative across PHSA. For more information, please visit the OVH webpage or send an email to officeofvirtualhealth@phsa.ca.


Office of Virtual Health; BC Children's Hospital
Children's Health
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