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The gatekeeper system and disparities in use of psychiatric care by neighbourhood education level: results of a nine-year cohort study in Toronto


Background — In Ontario, psychiatric care is fully covered by provincial health insurance without co-payments or deductibles. The provincial fee schedule supports a "gatekeeper" system for psychiatric care by paying psychiatrists more for consultations with patients who have a physician referral. In this context, we sought to explore socio-economic differences in patterns of mental health service delivery.

Method — We employed a retrospective cohort design using administrative and census data from 1995 to 2004. Subjects were 1,448,820 adults in Toronto with no physician mental healthcare in the previous three years. We determined time-dependent differences by sex and neighbourhood education quintile for the time to first mental health visit, time to the first mental health visit with a family physician or general practitioner (FP/GP), referral time from the FP/GP to a psychiatrist and the time to the first mental health visit with a psychiatrist.

Results — Relative to the lowest neighbourhood education group, individuals in the highest neighbourhood education groups were less likely, and took longer, to have a first visit to a FP/GP, but once seen were more likely, and took less time, to be referred to a psychiatrist. The highest education group was more than twice as likely to see a psychiatrist without a FP/GP referral and took less time to do so than the lowest education group.

Conclusions/Discussion — The patterns of care we found suggest three major conclusions: (1) that a significant portion of psychiatric service users in our setting bypass the gatekeeper function of the FP/GP; (2) that social inequities are particularly marked when the gatekeeper role of the FP/GP is bypassed; and (3) that even within the gatekeeper system there is evidence of inequity in referral patterns and referral times. New models of mental healthcare delivery or adjustment of the current model may be needed to redress these disparities.



Steele LS, Glazier RH, Agha M, Moineddin R. Healthc Policy. 2009; 4(4):e133-50.

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