P.A. inpatient child mental health unit to reopen

Prince Albert's Victoria Hospital. (Herald file photo)

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is re-opening up to five inpatient beds at the Prince Albert Child and Youth Inpatient unit after a months-long closure.

The unit has been closed since the retirement of the city’s last child and youth psychiatrist last year. It also lost a psychiatrist in 2019 due to the passing of Dr. Mohammad Zulkfiquar Hussain.

The SHA has brought in Dr. Randy Zbuk, who has over 10 years of experience in child and youth psychiatry with a strong interest in inpatient services and “a passion of growing the field of psychiatry,” the SHA said in a press release.

Zbuk comes to Prince Albert from Edmonton, where he worked as a child and youth psychiatrist at the Allin Clinic, according to a LinkedIn profile bearing his name. The University of Alberta had him listed as a clinical lecturer in the department of psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine.

A phased re-opening was announced Thursday. The first phase will involve up to five beds. “We are very pleased that children and youth will have better access to the help they need, with the reintroduction of child psychiatry services in Prince Albert,” said the Honourable Everett Hindley, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Seniors and Rural and Remote Health “This important step supports our collective efforts to improve and expand mental health services for young people and for all residents of our province.”

In a press release, the SHA said it has been reviewing recruitment and strategy to look at how to achieve successful recruitment and “long-term sustainability.”

Patients and their families were referred to Saskatoon for care, taking them further away from their home communities and placing more strain on Saskatoon’s services. In the fall, Saskatoon psychiatrists spoke out to call on the province to replace the positions vacated in Prince Albert.

While Dr. Tamara Hinz, one of the Saskatoon psychiatrists who spoke to media in the fall, was pleased with the news, she hopes more work is being done to help supplement Zbuk’s care. As it stands, she said, those five spots are already full, and Saskatoon will still be taking on some of the patient load. The Prince Albert unit is designed for ten beds.

Hiring a psychiatrist for Prince Albert “was crucial,” Hinz said.

“Saskatoon was really needing to absorb the lion’s share of the child psychiatry work from not only P.A., but that whole northern catchment area that would have previously gone to PA. It was really quite tiring to add to the workload. We are extremely grateful that Dr. Zbuk has started there.”

Exactly how much the workload increased in Saskatoon is hard to quantify, Hinz said, adding that sometimes there were as many as three or four Prince Albert patients in the ten-bed Saskatoon unit.

Re-opening the Prince Albert unit won’t just take a load off of Saskatoon doctors, though. It will also lead to improved care and outcome for patients from Prince Albert and the north.

“Anytime you’re admitted to a hospital, particularly for a mental health reason, it’s by definition an extremely stressful time in life,” Hinz said.

“I can’t imagine what these families were going through to have to do that and then have their kids admitted so far away from home. It leaves a lot of families in really impossible situations. Either they are having to leave work or other family members in their home community to be in Saskatoon with their child in the hospital, or they have to leave their child in the hospital alone so that they can deal with things closer to home. I think it’s hugely important that you are close to your family and close to your support when you’re in a hospital.”

It also has consequences for post-treatment services, Hinz said. A big part of the hospital team’s job is to ensure the patient is connected to the right supports and services after their release.

“Our inpatient team in Saskatoon is great, but we don’t have that kind of on-the-ground knowledge and experience of what’s available in Prince Albert,” Hinz explained. “The best people to be making those kinds of treatment plans are people actually in that city.”

While hiring one psychiatrist and opening five beds is a start, Hinz said more has to be done. The Prince Albert unit is designed for ten beds, and up until 2019, had two psychiatrists.

“Because Doctor Zbuk is there on his own, they are currently only able to reopen the unit to half capacity while he’s there,” Hinz cautioned.

“It’s certainly not the end of our capacity issues. I think pretty quickly, actually, we’ve near filled up that that small unit just based on patients that I know have been needing hospitalization and transfers from Saskatoon.

“I hope that this is only the beginning of the recruitment efforts for the region, because there’s a lot of work to be done. I think that’s going to be a lot for one physician to handle on his own. I hope that he will be joined by some colleagues, but we appreciate that he is there.”

That’s especially true as mental health units see increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hinz said that in Saskatoon and beyond, they’re seeing more hospitalizations due to eating disorder. Those patients stay longer, because they also have to be brought back up to a healthy weight before they can be released, which can take weeks.

“That really limits your capacity to treat other children with mental health needs, so we are definitely feeling the squeeze in capacity,” she said.

In a press release, the SHA said that recruitment efforts continue “for additional child and youth psychiatry resources.”

Last fall the SHA said it was actively recruiting for four child and youth psychiatrists in Prince Albert.

Brett Enns, Executive director of primary health care for the north and northeast, said he anticipated that the SHA will be able to recruit one or two youth psychiatrists within the next few months to a year.

“It’s more than just recruiting to a job. Many of these folks have been in school for lengthy periods of time and so often they have family, often they have children. Many times the children are in school, maybe a home involved. It’s a family decision as much as it is an individual physician decision to make a move.”

Enns said patients can still seek help through the Victoria Hospital’s emergency department. He said there’s an adult psychiatrist that can also care for children.

In Thursday’s press release, the SHA said that whether service and bed capacity will increase would be determined through an ongoing evaluation process.

“We are thankful to our Saskatoon colleagues for their support over the recent months and the numerous partners with in our community who worked closely with us during this transition,” said Jennifer Suchorab, SHA’s Director of Mental Health and Addiction, Northeast. “Together with our partners, we have shown that Prince Albert and area has a great working collaboration with other services to children and youth and that this is a great city to come to with a plethora of opportunities.”