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How one Doctor’s MedicAlert experience turned into a province-wide mental health initiative

November 2019 Share with   facebook   twitter

MedicAlert, BC Children's Hospital and FamilySmart have launched a pilot initiative giving patients the opportunity to register and wear the MedicAlert bracelet

It’s estimated that 1.2 million children in Canada are affected by mental illness. For child psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Russel, of BC Children’s Hospital, the statistics are no surprise. Dr. Russel is the Director of Compass Mental Health, a province-wide service that supports evidence-based care by supporting community care providers with the information, advice and resources they need to deliver appropriate and timely care to children and youth close to home.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, since 2006 there has been a sharp increase in mental health-related emergency department visits for children and youth aged five to 24. For some of these patients, a trip to the emergency department begins with an interaction with first responders.

For Dr. Russel, it wasn’t until she was able to draw a parallel between her own experience as a mom and the Compass program’s goal of providing appropriate and timely care for children and youth with mental health challenges that a lightbulb went off. That’s when the idea for a pilot project between MedicAlert, BC Children’s and FamilySmart was born.

The birth of an idea

Dr. Russel’s son Charlie has a severe allergy to nuts. She discovered it when Charlie was nearly two and decided to sneak a bite of his older brother’s peanut butter sandwich. He had an anaphylactic reaction, and was rushed to the ER for lifesaving treatment. Soon after, Charlie began to wear a MedicAlert bracelet so that health professionals and emergency responders would know about his allergy. She is comforted by the fact that should he have an allergic reaction at school or daycare, emergency responders would be able to access his MedicAlert profile through the 24/7 Emergency Hotline and then contact her and her husband through MedicAlert’s Family Notification service.

It’s this peace of mind that parents of children with mental health challenges are looking for as well, notes Dr. Russel. Kids with mental health challenges might not always know how best to communicate in a difficult or stressful situation. Many of the patients they see at BC Children’s have complex mental health challenges. For example, some have psychotic episodes can be easily misinterpreted when observers are unaware of the child’s mental health status.

“It dawned on me that Charlie has a safety net because of his MedicAlert ID for his medical condition, but kids with mental health challenges didn’t have that same safety net,” says Dr. Russel, explaining that Charlie’s MedicAlert service includes a custom care plan to inform emergency responders how to care for him in crisis.

“Many children and youth with mental health challenges have developed custom care plans with their doctors,” says Dr. Russel. This may include guidance on how to approach them and how to calm them, as well as any medications they need.

Piloting a plan
She approached FamilySmart, a non-profit organization that provides support, navigation assistance and information to young people and families facing mental health challenges, to jointly propose the idea of a pilot program to MedicAlert. The program gives BC Children's mental health patients the information they need to enroll with MedicAlert and receive an ID and service plan. Keli Anderson from FamilySmart believes that young people need care and caring when they are struggling with their mental health – and MedicAlert can enhance both of these.
“I’m passionate about kids’ mental health and kids getting gold standard treatment,” says Dr. Russel. “By having a MedicAlert ID, police and emergency responders know there’s more to know about that person in crisis and they can quickly access that information.”

Children who have allergies are where there’s a clear connection between MedicAlert’s services and the information first responders and medical personnel need to provide optimal care. It was Dr. Russel’s expertise that connected the dots for a situation that may not be as obvious. “Charlie always wears his MedicAlert ID bracelet. That’s really comforting to us as parents,” she says. “Drawing the connection from my personal experience to my professional life happened because of my own lived experience. Seeing the issues that some of my patients and their families were dealing with – the misunderstandings that can occur for a child and their parents who are managing mental health challenges – I can empathize. I think the MedicAlert pilot program is another way we can provide peace of mind for parents. It will go a long way in helping everyone involved in working with children who have mental health challenges.”
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