Photo above: Dr Desmond Ong, 34, a family physician at Jurong Polyclinic speaks to a patient (requested not to be named or photographed in recognizable manner) in a mental health clinic.
SINGAPORE - More mentally ill patients are getting help at two polyclinics that first started providing these services in 2008.
Many of these patients are fresh cases who were picked out when they visited general clinics for other ailments. But some are referrals from other polyclinics.
The number of patients has been on the rise, despite the service being available only once a week at these clinics in Jurong and Ang Mo Kio.
Jurong Polyclinic saw 105 patients suffering illnesses ranging from depression to anxiety in the first year it offered the service, starting from April 2010. This figure doubled to 223 patients the following year.
Patient numbers grew steadily at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic too, rising from 189 in the April 2009 to March 2010 financial year to 224 patients for the year from April last year to March, said a spokesman for National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP), which runs both polyclinics.
These closer-to-home polyclinics appeal to many as they are convenient, cheaper and also carry less stigma than going to traditional hospital psychiatrists, said Dr Desmond Ong, a family physician at Jurong Polyclinic.
They can assist in getting patients to seek help when they otherwise would not have, he added.
One such person is Madam Tan (not her real name), who has been slipping in and out of depression since her husband died five years ago. "I won't consider going to a specialist, because coming here is convenient," said Madam Tan, 41, adding that she visits the doctor after taking her sons to school. "Also, I can afford the fees here."
Consultations for this service, called the Health & Mind Clinic, start from $23. Medication is billed separately, and counselling conducted by a psychologist costs another $20 at least.
Fees for a psychiatrist can cost more than $100 each time.
Madam Tan said that on top of trying to make ends meet, she was distressed by her 14-year-old son's performance in school. He was playing truant and failing his exams. Her 10-year-old son, who has heart problems, was another worry.
"I became very sick - I wasn't sleeping well, and I couldn't take care of my family," she said in Mandarin.
By the time she sought help in February, she was on the verge of a breakdown.
"I even told a friend that I wished I was the one who had died instead of my husband."
With medication and counselling from a psychologist at Jurong Polyclinic, her condition is now more stable.
Dr Ong said most patients at the clinic have mild to moderate mental illness. If their conditions worsen, the polyclinic refers them for more specialised care.
The service is not limited to those with mental illness. Polyclinic regulars with long-term ailments like diabetes can also suffer from mental health issues like stress, said Dr Ong. After all, patients with such chronic diseases have a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety problems later on, he added.
There is however, one downside. Dr Ong pointed out that the service is limited by manpower needs. "The running of such clinics is highly labour-intensive," he added.
The consultation times for such cases are longer - ranging from 15 minutes to 45 minutes on average.
"Time must be taken to understand the patient's issues, and rapport must be built so the patient is able to trust the doctor."
But for NHGP, the positives appear to far outweigh the negatives. It hopes to roll out this service at more polyclinics.
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