Dr. Heather Keizer told the legislative health committee Tuesday the situation is “extremely onerous” for the few psychiatrists working in emergency rooms.
“Whereas we should have 15 psychiatrists on-call in our emergency room, we have 4.7,” Keizer said.
“We are extremely short-handed.”
The number of actual full-time-equivalent (FTE) psychiatrist positions in the province’s complement is 15 but currently only 9.5 of those positions are filled and only 4.7 FTE psychiatrists are available to work on-call in ERs on the Island.
This has led to extensive wait times for Island patients in need of acute mental health and addictions treatment.
Opposition health critic James Aylward asked Keizer if this could mean someone who is suicidal with a plan to carry out a tragedy could be discharged from an ER without seeing a psychiatrist.
Keizer said “it’s conceivable” because of the current shortage.
“I think that’s shocking,” Aylward said later.
“I think it’s only a matter of time where we see a bad news story where the worst has happened. We need to be proactive now to ensure we are protecting Islanders, particularly individuals who are expressing feelings of self-harm or suicidal thoughts. It’s far too serious of an issue to sweep it under the rug.”
Keizer says the shortage is due in part to a number of recent retirements, attrition and also because some psychiatrists left the province after a “performance review.”
She explained that recruitment done by the province in the past when shortages reached similar “desperate” levels did not elicit “the most robust candidates.”
Efforts are now underway to focus on recruiting Canadian psychiatry graduates, especially those with links to the Island. A request has also been made to Health P.E.I. to increase the psychiatrist complement to 15.
And the shortages are not only in psychiatry.
Verna Ryan, the chief administrative officer for mental health and addictions, told the committee Tuesday there are also a number of vacancies in psychology the province can’t seem to fill.
Health Minister Robert Henderson pointed out the Island is competing with other, larger jurisdictions when it comes to recruiting psychiatrists and psychologists.
He did, however, acknowledge the compensation P.E.I. offers psychiatrists is lower than other provinces.
“That’s where we will review that and hopefully get to a number that makes us more competitive.”
Another aspect of the problem is due to high rates of mental illness in P.E.I., Keizer said. She compared her experience on the Island to that of a similar-sized jurisdiction in Ontario where she previously practiced psychiatry.
“Since I’ve moved here, I’ve seen more severe, more illness more regularly in the emergency rooms of Prince Edward Island than I did in Ontario, and that may reflect just the demographics of P.E.I. and maybe some of the predispositions of our population.”
Keizer urged all MLAs on the committee to realize this issue supersedes politics and asked all sides of the house to recognize that long-term planning and investment in mental health and addictions is needed.
As for dealing with the current psychiatry shortage, Keizer says she has performed a number of online and in-person interviews and hopes to welcome some new psychiatrists to the Island soon.