It is now evident that the UK's battle against COVID-19 is far from over, and that the road ahead of us will be both unpredictable and challenging. However, whilst one public health crisis attracts the media attention, under the radar another is gathering pace.
Medical professionals and charities are warning that the NHS could soon be overwhelmed by a ‘tsunami’ of mental health emergencies, as backlogs in referrals, prolonged lockdown and the impact of suspended treatments will reach crisis point by winter.
What’s the problem?
In a recent survey carried out by the charity Rethink Mental Illness, over three-quarters of respondents said that their mental health had got worse or much worse as a result of the pandemic, with isolation, unemployment and bereavement being major triggers for sufferers. 42% of those asked said their mental health has worsened because they were getting less support from mental health services: a result of a redirection of NHS resources to the frontline COVID-19 response and a suspension of face-to-face support.
Even where mental services were still up and running, the government’s Stay Home message acted as a deterrent to those who normally depended on regular access to treatment. In May, after 2 months of lockdown, the Royal College of Psychiatrists released the results of a survey which showed that 45% of psychiatrists had experienced a drop off in routine work, as many patients stayed away from doctors surgeries and hospitals for fear of infection or of ‘burdening’ the NHS. The inability of some vulnerable demographics to access digital healthcare is also likely to have contributed to this decline in access.
The current situation
Although the government has pledged to keep NHS services fully operational, the announcement of a second national lockdown will inevitably compound the severity of the current mental health crisis. Patients with pre-existing conditions are likely to deteriorate further unless extensive measures are put in place to support them through this challenging period.
In addition, stress and social isolation has already triggered an influx of patients to present with poor mental health to their GPs for the first time. Many patients are suffering with extremely serious symptoms and requiring complex support. However, just like the cancer services having to handle more advanced-stage patients owing delayed diagnosis, mental health services are struggling to cope.
We caught up with Dr Sui Yung Chen, a Trainee Psychiatrist working in Gloucestershire Health and Care NHS Foundation Trust, to discuss how Cinapsis SmartReferrals has transformed communication between the Mental Health service and Acute services for clinicians and how that is benefitting patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What needs to change?
At Cinapsis, we are adding our voice to the call for NHS providers to proactively defuse the threat of a mental health crisis in the UK. To achieve this, we believe that it’s essential to unite the numerous players within the disjointed and compartmentalised system of NHS mental health provision.
Currently, mental health support is distributed across numerous community providers, charities, GPs and hospitals. A patient’s journey through the system is often non-linear, disjointed and difficult to track. There is a growing recognition of the need to streamline the fragmented channels of communication between professionals in the mental health space. This is where Cinapsis’s technology has the potential to drive positive change.
With our SmartReferrals platform, proactive discussion and knowledge-sharing between all layers of the health service is an achievable reality. Our secure instant messaging and calling feature can connect community practitioners with GPs to coordinate the at-home care plan for a patient, link up hospital ward teams with GPs to plan for a patient’s safe discharge, or enable a paramedic to receive advice on handling a crisis situation.
We know that keeping mental health patients out of hospitals is an important goal, and this is much more likely to happen if GPs are able to seek advice from specialists regarding the correct path of referral to pursue for each specific case. Using the secure Cinapsis app, this can be achieved even when a GP or specialist consultant is working from home.
There is a growing understanding of the importance of co-treating mental and physical health conditions, and in a disjointed and compartmentalised health system this is certainly easier said than done. It’s only by facilitating conversation and co-decision making between cross-spectrum professionals that the most complex of cases can be successfully treated.
We believe that the incoming tsunami can be averted by uniting our Primary Care, Secondary Care and Community Care providers, and that this demands a focus on barrier-free communication between all stakeholders and robust organisational memory. We will continue to welcome GPs, specialists and mental health crisis teams onto our SmartReferrals platforms so that more patients can be placed upon the correct referral pathway and access timely, impactful mental and physical care before it’s too late.