Health Minister Christine Elliott was in Guelph Friday afternoon to announce funding for the Guelph and Area Ontario Health Team, one of 24 teams in the province to be the first to get funding from the Government of Ontario. Both Elliott and the local team were adamant that this is a big step in securing better health services for Guelph and surrounding communities in Rockwood, Erin, and Puslinch.
“These teams will better support patients and families by connecting them with local providers so they work together as a single unit,” Elliott said. “Your local Ontario Health Teams will ensure a seamless experience and smooth transitions for patients, especially when they’re moving from one care setting to another.”
The Government of Ontario announced the new Ontario Health Team structure in April as a new way to organize health services to make it easier for patients to more easily move through the healthcare system. The idea is to make the system more responsive to the needs of patients with better co-ordination between various health services, from primary care at your family doctor or the hospital, to mental health, long-term care, or palliative care.
“The Ontario Health Team is the most important health care initiative I have seen in over 20 years working in our local health system,” said Ross Kirkconnell, Executive Director of the Guelph Family Health Team in a media statement from the Province. “With our [team], we have the incredible opportunity to improve the health and well-being of our community by working more closely together, building on our strengths and putting local residents at the centre of everything we do.”
According to its website, the Guelph and Area Ontario Health Team will focus on two local priorities: palliative care and mental health & addictions. Partners in the endeavour include the aforementioned Guelph Family Health Team, as well as the Elliott Community, Stonehenge Therapeutic, Hospice Wellington, Sanguen Health Centre, Guelph Community Health Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington, and, of course Guelph General Hospital.
So far Mississauga, Hamilton and Durham have also been announced as recipients for health team funding. According to the Province, 158 Ontario teams have applied for funds, including a separate health team that will cover the rest of Wellington County.
Elliott said that the Guelph team stood out because it was evident that there was an understanding about the gaps in the system and the challenges being faced in the area.
“There also needs to be collaboration that exists in a real way,” Elliott explained. “There were site visits as part of the final decision about the application to make sure that it wasn’t just what was said on paper, but that collaberation was really happening on the ground, and you can see by the number of people in here.
“Teams also have to meet certain criteria and certain standards that we have internally, which this application did as well,” she added.
The Government of Ontario has four pillars that need to be met for the health teams including prevention and health promotion, providing the right care in the right place, integration and improved patient flow, and building capacity.
So what does that mean for how Guelphites and others covered by the local health team?
“A Very Positive Advancement for Healthcare”
That’s how Robert Mungham, co-chair of the Guelph Family Health Team’s Patient-Family Advisory committee, described the announcement. Mungham not only has an important role in the team, but he’s one of the people that knows first-hand the desperate need for change in the way we approach healthcare.
“I remember one evening in November of 2017 when [my son] came to me and asked for the keys to the car. I asked him why he wanted them, and he boldly looked me in the face and said, ‘I’m looking to go find a truck, so I can kill myself,'” recalled Mungham.
Mungham’s teenage son was eventually diagnosed bipolar, and today he’s enjoying success as a register sheet metal apprentice and improved mental health, but the two-year long journey was far from ideal for Mungham and his family as it took three months to find a psychiatrist, and it was not a local referral.
“It is for this reason that the announcement today of the Guelph and Area Ontario Health Team is so critical as it offers us hope for our family, and for other families like ours,” Mungham said. “I believe that this is truly a critical step in the development of a patient-centric model for healthcare.”
Responsiveness and timeliness are apparently the main concerns for the health team. Kirkconnell said that patients should see improvements on that front relatively quickly thanks to some important feedback from local caregivers.
“When they bought their relatives into hospice they said it felt good, and it felt safe, and we said, ‘How can we replicate that feeling in the rest of the system?'” Kirkconnell explained. “So when you take that apart, what was missing? Well, they had questions and no one was there to answer them, symptoms happened and they had no one to call, or they needed a nurse and didn’t know where to find one. Those are things we can fix.”
“Not to take anything away from current providers, they’re doing a great job, but as administrators, we need to organize services better to make sure nobody falls between those cracks,” Kirkconnell added.
One of those cracks, he said, is duplication. A family doctor might refer a patient to the next available counselor and could end having the same name on more than one waiting list. “We know that there are opportunities in the system to do things more efficiently by eliminating duplication and making sure information gets forwarded,” he said.
Meanwhile, at the Hospital…
But the implementation of the Ontario Health Team will not be a cure to all of Guelph’s health-related issues.
Marianne Walker, the CEO of Guelph General Hospital, said that co-ordination between the hospital and its partner health agencies has already made sure that most people coming to the emergency room are the people with the most urgent need.
“What we have noticed over the years is that the patients who really should be seen at the Family Health Team are being seen there, our fours and fives have gone down,” Walker said. “But what’s gone up is the number of patients who we triage as ones, twos and threes, with the ones being the most acute. Those have gone up dramatically.”
The work of the health team will be a better form of triage across the range of health services, according to Walker. In the case of people with complex mental health issues, the hope is to keep that patient from going to the E.R., but if they do come into emergency, then the personnel there will have the information readily available to refer that patient to their psychiatrist or other health provider.
“It’s the same with palliative care. Our goal is make sure that patients do not need to come to the hospital at the end of life, but to make it about how that care is wrapped around the patient in the community, so they won’t be coming into the hospital,” Walker said.
Trying to get fewer people to come to the hospital is the ultimate endgame, but it’s tricky because Guelph’s healthcare problems are as much about the number of people as they are about the problems.
“The Ministry knows our concerns, and the major issue in Guelph is the growth of our community,” Walker said. “It’s one of the fastest growing communities in Canada, and we’re feeling it in the hospital.”
Expanding the emergency department is one of the projects that the hospital is looking to get an investment for from the City of Guelph to the tune of $4.5 million over five years. Elliott was non-committal about the Province’s 90 per cent share for the capital costs of hospital expansion.
“I can assure you we’re seriously considering that,” she said.