Digital communication removes barriers to delivery of vital services to underserved communities

Just this week, the Government of Canada launched its new First Nations and Inuit Hope For Wellness hotline – a 24/7 hotline that offers counseling services to indigenous Canadians. Trained crisis counselors provide immediate, culturally relevant support in English and French as well as (on request) Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktut. This service is being provided not only over the phone, but also over web chat.

This new help line is an exciting example of the potential that digital communication has to equalize the delivery of vital services like mental healthcare to underserved remote and indigenous communities – which have experienced higher rates of suicide and mental illness than primarily urban areas of Canada. Additionally, according to CAMH, the range of services in rural and Northern Canadian communities is “less comprehensive, accessible, and available” than in their counterpart urban communities. Digital communication channels can remove the barriers to delivery of vital services posed by difficulty of access and transportation to these remote locations.

Studies have shown that the digital delivery of mental health care when implemented correctly is as effective as face-to-face care. And preliminary data suggests that compliance might even be better than with face-to-face care. So when one considers the implications of expanding this model to address the shortage other vital services to remote communities, a number of potential benefits emerge, such as:

Replacing fragmented care with continuous care

The difficulty of attracting doctors, counselors, and other providers of vital social and health services to remote communities has been another persistent challenge in equalizing access to vital services. But digital communication allows for the delivery of these services from any physical location.

This can allow providers of vital services to form long-term relationships with service users – which often does not happen currently in underserviced communities. Removing obstacles to care eliminates the difficulties posed by fragmented, discontinuous care and allows care providers to address the underlying causes of health and mental health problems rather than just treating the symptoms.

Increased efficiency through digital delivery of routine health care

Another benefit (as identified by the Mental Health Commission of Canada) that digital communication technology delivers is bringing badly needed efficiencies to an increasingly burdened health system. Allowing patients to access digital channels for the delivery of routine care will improve patient access to:

  • Preventative care – which in some cases can save the healthcare system money, but in all cases improves overall patient health outcomes.
  • Effective management of chronic illnesses – which consumes 67{37abcf34a54b93343e5398ae04805616021ee806af480764212b11c4286aaf7a} of the Canadian healthcare budget.

As the developed world faces the difficulty of an aging population and increasing rates of chronic illness, finding and implementing efficiencies will be important to maintaining standards of care.

Increased access to treatment through avoidance of perceived stigma

While awareness initiatives have sought to raise awareness and acceptance of the prevalence of mental illness, the social stigma against mental illness still keeps some from accessing needed treatment because they don’t want to be seen accessing those services.

However, one of the main attractions of digital communication is that it can be used from any location. Providing access to mental health care over digital channels could allow people who wouldn’t feel comfortable walking into a psychologist’s office to access diagnostic care and get referrals to needed treatment.

Addressing the mental health crisis in indigenous communities

Digital messaging for mental health care is of particular benefit to indigenous, Inuit, and Metis communities in Canada, by allowing for the improvement of access to mental health and other services on digital communication channels. While addressing the structural and systemic issues is an important long-term action to improve the delivery of healthcare to these communities, the implementation of immediate crisis counseling services like the Hope For Wellness chat service offers an immediate short-term solution to address a critical need.

We, here, at In The Chat are excited to see this innovative approach to increasing access to care services for underserved populations. It’s our hope that the Hope For Wellness hotline will be the first of many to come.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider