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From insomnia to depression, health-care professionals are embracing the Internet as a resource for patients

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Dr. Norah Vincent will be speaking at a U of M symposium about a web program she developed to help people with insomnia.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Dr. Norah Vincent will be speaking at a U of M symposium about a web program she developed to help people with insomnia. Photo Store

Psychologist Dr. John Walker is used to his patients arriving at their sessions with pages of information they've printed off from the Internet.

But the University of Manitoba professor and director of the St. Boniface General Hospital anxiety disorders program doesn't seem to mind.

"The Internet is often one of the early places people go to get help if they have a problem," says Walker, noting that more than 80 per cent of Canadians have high-speed web access in their homes.

Statistics Canada data collected in 2009 says 70 per cent of Canadians use the Internet to look up health information.

Walker says those numbers are only growing.

"Some people are a bit negative about the trend. I'm very positive about it -- that people can get information."

Walker and his U of M colleague Dr. Norah Vincent, a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders, have both embraced the trend.

They are presenting their online creations tonight at a free symposium at the University of Manitoba that's open to the public.

The event is part of a week-long series taking place across the country sponsored by Healthy Minds Canada, a non-profit organization founded in 1980. The theme: Using the Internet to bolster mental health.

Walker says his new website, http://depression.informedchoices.ca, is part of an effort to get patients high-quality information about depression.

"The challenge is really there is some great information there. And there is some not-so-good information there. It's a little bit hard to sort it out," says Walker.

He believes existing health resources on the web -- even ones released by major medical organizations -- fail to answer crucial questions such as how long a treatment option should last and how much it will cost.

Walker says his site will be more thorough.

Vincent will present information about her online web program to help insomniacs.

The director of the behavioural sleep medicine clinic at the Health Sciences Centre says her program is the first on the web to be used in a public health setting as the first line of treatment for patients with sleep disorders.

She says 400 to 600 Manitobans come through her HSC program every year. About 80 per cent of those use her web program, which runs for six weeks and takes the user through lesson plans, home exercises and progress reports.

"We teach people ways to manage an active mind at night -- how to deal with worries so they don't pop into your head the moment you wake up in the middle of the night and that kind of thing," says Vincent, noting that it may even help people whose insomnia is due to physical issues, such as sleep apnea.

"We find that as long as a person has a problem with lying awake at night, this program is likely to help them."

Sleep disorders can lead to serious consequences, such as falling asleep behind the wheel or sleeping on the job.

Users are first screened over the phone by an HSC staffer to verify that they are good candidates for the program.

If they are, they are given a login code and password that allows them to use the interactive program.

Walker and Vincent's web inventions are part of another trend towards web-based treatment for psychological disorders.

Earlier this month, the Free Press reported on Walker's new web program to help parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety.

Walker said the program could eliminate the need to see a psychologist about the issue. If not, it at least would help children while they wait to see an anxiety specialist, which could take up to one year.

Vincent says her web-based program would also help those waiting to see a behavioural sleep specialist.

Waiting times can vary depending on the situation.

"If we prioritize you, the waiting time can be a couple of weeks if your family doctor says it's urgent. If you're lower priority, it can take up to a year to be seen,' says Vincent.

"You can get access to our online program within two or three weeks. That's not bad."

Tonight's Using the Power of the Internet in Mental Health presentation takes place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Registration begins at 6:30 p.m. Presentations are at Robert B. Schultz Lecture Theatre in St. John's College (92 Dysart Rd.), at the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus. To register, log onto https://omac2013winnipeg.eventbrite.ca/ or call 204-237-2335.


Have an interesting story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 30, 2013 D1

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Updated on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 6:24 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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