For more than a century, Ontario Shores has taken a lead role in advancing care in mental health for their patients. And, in many cases, they’re using impressive technology and modernization to better the lives of some of the province’s most vulnerable people.

If you live in and around Durham Region, or even across the Greater Toronto Area, and have family members or friends who are battling mental health issues, there’s a good chance they’ve been touched in some way by Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences. Located in Whitby, south of the 401 near the waterfront, just steps away from Lake Ontario, the nearly 101-year-old public hospital specializes in assessing and treating those in crisis and people who live with serious and complicated mental illnesses. Sprawling across eight buildings and 55,000 square feet, the hospital is truly the jewel of the region — with more than 1,300 employees and 300 inpatient beds, there are only four facilities in the province like it. That said, it’s also still a mystery to most residents; an enigma to those who only have experience with hospitals that focus on general surgeries and childbirths. What so many people don’t know is that Ontario Shores relies heavily on technological advances to treat their in- and out-patients — and they’re one of the top hospitals in the country when it comes to revolution and innovation. In fact, innovation is one of their core values: “ Through research and creative approaches, we support the advancement of mental health care.” Technology and innovation aren’t new concepts for the hospital — it has a long history steeped in research and evolution. In the early 1940s, for example, the use of electroshock therapy was increasing and was quickly adopted by the hospital as a treatment for patients. A decade later, in 1955, antidepressants and anti-psychotics were being introduced with good results. Fast-forward to 2015 when Ontario Shores was the first hospital in the country — and the first mental health hospital in the world — to receive the HIMSS EMRAM Stage 7 award. This high-status designation is given to healthcare organizations for having a fully paperless health information and electronic medical record system. “There is a real focus on technology here because it adds so much to the quality of care for our patients. We lead the pack and are teaching other organizations how to do what we’ve accomplished when it comes to innovation,” says Dr. Karima Velji, the vice-president of clinical services at Ontario Shores.
Ontario Shores Team
Repetitive transcrainial magnetic stimulation (the device is pictured here) was introduced earlier this year.

Ontario Shores HealthCheck

According to a 2015 study conducted by researchers at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and University Health Network, “the role of the patient has changed over the years from that of a passive recipient of care to an active member of the decision-making team.” The study found that a “surprisingly high number of patients are still unaware of their legal right to access their health record,” even though researchers from around the world have long reported that patients who can check their health records are empowered, and it can improve doctor-patient communication and a patient’s overall satisfaction with their care.

In 2014, Ontario Shores’ CEO, Karim Mamdani, had a vision. “He wanted to make our hospital a centre of excellence and had a mandate to improve the journey of patients and their families,” says Dr. Velji. The launch of Ontario Shores’ HealthCheck Patient Portal in December of that year was the culmination of the team’s plan to democratize healthcare and “put information about patients’ care in their hands.” The portal, which supports the hospital’s view of empowerment, recovery, collaboration, inclusion and promoting self-management, allows patients see their chart, visit history, request medication renewals, request or cancel appointments, and even send messages to their doctors. “They can get information right away. And because we’re empowering them, they are better able to articulate what they’re going through,” says Dr. Velji. “I love to see patients empowered this way. We put our money where our mouth is in recovery.” The portal has shown a host of benefits for Ontario Shores patients, including a decrease in missed appointments and improved communication with healthcare providers.

Brain Stimulation Clinic

There are currently two services offered at the Brain Stimulation Clinic — electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The former, which involves a brief electrical stimulation of the brain while under anaesthesia, is still touted as the gold standard when it comes to treating major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder that doesn’t respond to first-line treatments (such as antidepressants).

Ontario Shores brought rTMS into their clinic in January. It’s also a good option for those who suffer from treatment-resistant depression and can’t (or choose not to) receive ECT. The treatment involves short sessions (usually less than 10 minutes per session) where magnetic pulses are directed at the brain to stimulate nerve cells. Sessions are every day (generally five days a week) for six weeks and about a third of patients end up with their symptoms reduced by half. There are currently only a small handful of hospitals in Ontario that offer rTMS, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, the University Health Network’s MRI-Guided rTMS Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital and the Linda & Donald Mair rTMS Clinic at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.

Dr. Velji says Ontario Shores’ interested psychiatrists who volunteered to learn about rTMS were sent for training. “Our psychiatrists stepped up to the plate and we now have four doctors who are able to treat 30 patients with one machine that we purchased,” she says. “It’s an evidence-based treatment that’s well-proven and should be accessible to more patients. The fact that people in Durham have had to go to Toronto for treatment is unfathomable.” The hospital has sent a proposal for more funding with the hopes of purchasing more machines.

“We’re using technology to transform the approach to mental health treatment in a non-pharmacological way.”


“When it comes to mental health and addiction care, there are very long wait times to see psychiatrists and other specialists. We currently have about 3,000 patients waiting, and their wait times are in excess of 100 days,” Dr. Velji says. “We wanted to solve this issue by ensuring we’re seeing the maximum number of patients.” There were also long wait times for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a common type of talk therapy that patients who suffer from a host of mental health issues (from depression to eating disorders) practice as a way to change their negative thinking and better manage stress. When Dr. Velji’s team looked through their cases, they found a large number of these patients could be seen electronically via virtual care.

Enter Ontario Shores’ partnership with SilverCloud Health in 2019. SilverCloud uses an electronic-based cognitive behaviour therapy (eCBT) program designed for people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety. The hospital has made it available to all outpatient services that provide mood and anxiety treatments; it’s accessible to patients via referral from their Ontario Shores’ physician.

“We were able to see patients sooner,” Dr. Velji says. Patients have access to weekly one-on-one therapy sessions for up to 16 weeks with a clinician via the plaform and results were more than favourable — eCBT patients fared just as well as patients in group CBT settings. As of last March, there were about 200 patients using the system and feedback has been extremely positive, Dr. Velji says. “This technology has really been instrumental in reducing wait times for mental health services,” she adds.

Electronic CBT isn’t just a service offered to patients. “When we ask staff for their biggest health concerns, mental health is one of the top of the list — it’s consistently in the top two,” she says. “As a mental healthcare organization, we should be showing leadership and supporting our staff with their own mental health.” To help employees manage stress and other issues, the hospital partnered with Beacon, a digital therapy platform that many employer or benefits plan provider covers.

Partnership with Ontario Tech

Last October marked a new partnership between Ontario Shores and Whitby’s Ontario Tech University — working together, they’d look to find solutions for dementia patients in the hospital’s Geriatric Dementia Unit. These patients have trouble remembering people, places, events and their past. The collaboration in the Clinical Demonstration Unit will include leveraging artificial intelligence with a conversational robot to detect and manage symptoms of dementia, using virtual reality (to introduce reminiscence therapy), bright light therapy (which can promote happiness and calmness) and personalized music interventions (which can evoke past memories). “We’re using technology to transform the approach to mental health treatment in a non-pharmacological way,” says Dr. Velji. “We love Ontario Tech because we share values around the ethical use of technology — its’ not a big, shiny toy to play with. It’s about being innovative, accessible, equitable and meeting the needs of the people who need it most.”

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