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Taking a close look at familiar faces

Hospital emergency rooms face many challenges including overcrowding due, in part, to repeat visitors. Some are patients with mental health issues or addictions who return because they don’t know where else to go during a crisis. But ERs aren’t always the best places for them.

Ottawa’s branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), in partnership with the Champlain Local Health Integration Network, has launched a unique program called “Familiar Faces” to overcome this problem.

Since 2014, the initiative has increased communication between hospitals and community-based mental health organizations to identify the ER’s familiar faces, pinpoint where they need more support, and direct them to agencies that can help. In partnership with Mitacs Accelerate, the project has been able to take another important step: research and evaluation.

“Right from the start, one of our fundamental beliefs was that we need evidence to ensure we’re doing this right and that the program could evolve to become better,” says CMHA Ottawa's Executive Director, Tim Simboli. “There are big, important, and challenging questions tied to this project — I haven’t seen the like of them in 40 years of working in the mental health sector.”

Enter the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, where the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services’ Tim Aubry and John Sylvestre recruited a team of Accelerate interns to conduct research on the “Familiar Faces” initiative.

“It’s addressing an emerging area in health services,” says Tim Aubry. “For a researcher like myself who trains psychologists, this was pretty attractive.”

One of the Accelerate interns, PhD candidate Jennifer Rae, says the potential for change is part of what drew her to psychology. “I like the idea of bringing about a fairer, equitable society — achieving social justice for marginalized populations.”

Jennifer says conducting interviews and collecting data about the program has been exciting. “I’ve heard about the gaps in the health care system that ‘Familiar Faces’ has addressed, and how it’s changed over two years.”

Tim Aubry says Mitacs has been invaluable. “It really extends the resources of a project like this, allowing us to elevate the rigour around the research. Our partners can start to ask ‘are we reaching the right people, are they getting what they need, and what improvements are they experiencing?’”

Though it’s still early, Tim Simboli predicts the review of “Familiar Faces” will have wide-ranging effects. “When we can say we improved outcomes for patients because mental health agencies and hospitals talked to each other, that’s going to be amazing. As the research shows us where and how to improve our services, we’ll get better at improving people’s lives. That could even lead to a total revamp of how these services are delivered — maybe even the mental health system itself.”


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada along with Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of Mitacs Accelerate.