Mental patients find it easier to get help

Dr Alan England is happy with mental health figures.
Dr Alan England is happy with mental health figures.

MORE than 50 per cent of Border and North East mental health patients are hospitalised on their first contact with the region’s clinical mental health team, figures show.

It makes the North East mental health service the lowest-ranking across regional Victoria for pre-admission patient contact — a status it has maintained for the past two years.

But the region’s top clinical psychiatrist Alan England said viewed “in context”, the figures showed patients were readily accessing mental health beds even if they weren’t considered acute cases.

That position seems at odds with general thinking that patients are only hospitalised as a last resort when at “crisis point”, but Dr England insisted the strategy worked and he was “comfortable” with the figures.

“Our focus is recovery, and because of that the main focus of our care is in the community,” he said.

Victorian Department of Health data from July to September last year shows 44 per cent of patients in the North East had contact with a mental health service before being admitted to hospital.

The target is 60 per cent, a figure not reached for almost two years.

It rose to 51 per cent in the April-June quarter last year after reaching a low of 39 per cent in January-March.

In 2012, the number hovered between 46 and 49 per cent.

According to the department, “contact with a patient prior to admission to hospital reflects a planned approach to admission and care, rather than a crisis response”.

The Border Mail reported in July last year the low contact rate indicated people were only seeking help when their condition was critical, but Dr England denied this was the case.

“We’re in the position of being able to offer people treatment at hospitals right away, often on the day of contact,” he said.

“People who are having difficulty can fairly easily access our service as there are often beds available.

“We can say ‘would you like to come into hospital for a longitudinal assessment and be assessed over a number of days’ ... where we can try different treatments and create a comprehensive plan for the person’s recovery.

“That shows as a negative in this data, but in my mind it’s a positive.”

Dr England said this meant the patients admitted weren’t always seriously ill, but could be assessed by a psychiatrist as opposed to in the community where “that assessment might take some time for an outpatient clinic”.

He said this advantage was possible because of the service’s “effective bed management”.

The Border and North East’s mental health service, which now comes under the umbrella of Albury Wodonga Health, has 20 beds at Wangaratta’s Kerferd Clinic.

The bed occupancy rate for July-September was 71 per cent, while the state average is closer to 90 per cent.

Dr England said Kerferd’s doctors were onsite all the time, allowing them to make round-the-clock decisions on treatment, whereas other services only had “fly-in” doctors.

He said other data showed people “weren’t sicker when they leave”; the pre-admission contact rate for ongoing patients remained steady at 70 per cent, while the post-discharge follow-up rate was 89 per cent, well above the target of 75.

Just five per cent of patients had to be readmitted within 28 days, well below the statewide target of 15 per cent, and an improvement on previous quarters where figures as fluctuated as high as 18 per cent in July-September 2012, to nine per cent in January-March last year.

Dr England said “earlier intervention is always one of those areas we’d like to build up”.