Distributed Education Profile: Dr. Amer Burhan - Bringing mental health expertise to Owen Sound

Faculty at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry are working to bring information and resources about geriatric mental health to rural regions in southwestern Ontario. In many of these communities the geriatric population is high, but access to experts in the field is limited.

Dr. Amer Burhan, chair, Geriatric Psychiatry, is working with Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s distributed education faculty as far north as Owen Sound, where there is a growing number of senior patients with mental health concerns.

“Our population is aging, and we have mental-health issues that will present for the first time in older age,” Dr. Burhan said. “The issue at the moment is we don’t have geriatric psychiatrists who are available in each of the smaller communities. We need to leverage the connections we have to provide clinical expertise and education to facilitate growth of skills and knowledge about this complex issue.”

Mental health in older adults was the focus of this year’s Mental Health Week in Canada that took place in May. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in four Canadian seniors currently has a mental health issue and there is growing evidence the incidence of mental illness is increasing in older adults.

“Our core message is trying to streamline the assessment, diagnosis and proper prescription of treatment for these patients. We want to provide comprehensive plans that look at non-pharmacological interventions that can help,” Dr. Burhan said. This group of patients is particularly challenging because they often present with a host of both physical and mental issues and are often on other medications. All these factors interact in a very complex way.

“When I look at my work as a hospitalist, I rarely see anyone under the age of 70,” said Dr. Brendan Mulroy, a Schulich Medicine & Dentistry faculty member and Site Chief at Owen Sound General Hospital. “You have to be very comfortable dealing with the difficulties which come with growing older.”

The team in Owen Sound meets weekly via the Ontario Telephone Network with Dr. Burhan and his team.

“It allows us to bring these experts to work at the coalface,” Dr. Mulroy said. “They are able to give us hands-on suggestions in terms of management for our patients on a regular basis. This connection has been wonderful.”

They also provide continuing professional development for family doctors, nurses and other clinicians who are often the first to see seniors with mental health concerns in these more rural areas. By ensuring that practitioners in the region have the latest information on what is happening in the field on things like behavioral symptoms of dementia or proper treatment of depression, they are giving these front-line clinicians the resources to provide the best possible care to this complex group of patients.