Train more GPs to treat mental problems, say experts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2003, 12:00am

Top medics urge action on depression, noting some patients face a two-year wait at public clinics

More general practitioners should be trained to treat patients with depression, who otherwise would have to wait up to two years for treatment at public clinics, according to two leading medics.

Chinese University professor of psychiatry Lee Sing said the government should put a priority on tackling the problem as the queues for treatment are so long that patients have little hope of getting urgently needed treatment.

'At public psychiatric clinics, the waiting time for a new-case appointment ranges from 12 weeks to two years,' Professor Lee said.

'The advantage of using properly trained GPs instead is they would be relatively affordable and there would be no waiting time.'

Professor Lee was speaking after a weekend symposium in Seoul attended by mental-health professionals from Hong Kong. Participants were told that depression was costing the region about US$100 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism from work and related health-care expenses.

'Depression exacts a devastating and costly toll on the millions of people in Asia who suffer from it,' said Norman Sartorius, past president of the World Psychiatric Association.

It is estimated that 30 million people in Asia suffer from depression.

Although both Chinese University and Hong Kong University teach GPs to recognise and treat depression, Professor Lee said the training should be stepped up.

Last year, the Hospital Authority had to attend to 20,000 new psychiatric cases which comprised mostly severe mental illness, he said, citing authority figures. But there are only about 160 qualified psychiatrists working in the public sector.

Left untreated, mild depression could worsen, with half of people who are severely depressed becoming suicidal, he said.

'People who are affected by depression are students and young adults to the middle aged, who are the active workforce. Often the problem is manifested in the workplace,' he said.

Professor Lee suggested that the government strengthen the training of private GPs so they can diagnose and treat depression.

'There is no stigma. You could go to a GP clinic and no one would know you are going to seek treatment for depression. Their working hours are flexible, which can fit the time of employees,' he said.

The university's Mood Disorder Centre has trained 270 GPs since 2001. Many of the doctors told him that one out of five regular patients consulted them for depression, Professor Lee said.