Polyclinics offering mental health help, taking pressure off hospitals

The scheme is a collaboration between NHGP, KTPH and the IMH and involves three polyclinics in Ang Mo Kio, Yishun and Woodlands.
The scheme is a collaboration between NHGP, KTPH and the IMH and involves three polyclinics in Ang Mo Kio, Yishun and Woodlands. PHOTO: LIN ZHAOWEI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - When family physician Winnie Soon treated a patient for diabetes, she realised that the woman had a deeper problem - she was sinking into depression because her husband was having an affair and it was affecting her physical health.

Dr Soon referred her to a psychologist and she was sent for counselling, something which may not have happened had her condition not been spotted under a scheme run by National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP).

Since 2012 Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) have been training primary care doctors - such as general practitioners and polyclinic physicians - to pick up on the signs of mental illness in an effort to detect cases earlier and reduce the stigma around seeking help for mental health problems.

On Thursday (Feb 22), NHGP revealed that between October 2015 and last September it dealt with 2,800 mental health cases - some of which involved patients who initially came in with other problems.

The scheme is a collaboration between NHGP, KTPH and the IMH and involves three polyclinics in Ang Mo Kio, Yishun and Woodlands.

Each sees roughly 30 patients with mental health issues every month, especially anxiety and depression. These are often picked up when patients are seeking treatment for other medical problems.

Dr Soon, a consultant with NHGP, said physical ailments such as chronic headaches or irritable bowels can be sometimes be signs of a mental issue.

"Managing both physical and mental health conditions is important because they are both connected," she added. "If you do not manage one of them, you find that the other may not be so well-managed as well."

Before the scheme was launched in 2012, many patients with mental health issues would be referred to hospital for treatment. Now four out of five patients seen at polyclinics can remain there.

More severe cases - such as patients who do not respond to medication or are suicidal - are referred to either KTPH or the IMH.

Dr Chan Keen Loong, a senior consultant in KTPH's department of psychological medicine, said that the changes have helped to free up resources so that more serious patients can be seen faster.

The waiting time for a first appointment is now down from eight to 12 weeks to about two.

"Now we are able to focus more time and attention on the cases that are more serious. Not everyone will see a doctor," he said, adding that some patients only require counselling. "Not everyone's mental health issues will need medication."