Experience exchange: Using the Ontario Common Assessment of Need (OCAN) during COVID-19

Experience exchange: Using the Ontario Common Assessment of Need (OCAN) during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Ontario Common Assessment of Need (OCAN) is the standardized assessment tool used in the community mental health sector since 2009. This tool helps supports conversations between service providers and their clients to better understand the client’s current situation, needs, and strengths, and to develop a service plan that focuses on the person’s recovery.

Experience Exchange captures and shares diverse stakeholder experiences to bear on Ontario’s mental health and addictions system. Evidence includes research, professional expertise, the lived experience of people and families, and cultural and traditional knowledge. In this Experience Exchange, we facilitated a discussion about the challenges and opportunities that service providers are facing in completing the OCAN assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We discussed this topic with three service providers working at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Peel Dufferin Branch:


This issue of Experience Exchange was developed by the OCAN Community of Interest with support from EENet and Community Care Information Management (CCIM).

What have been the challenges and strategies associated with your work during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Nicole: In our program usually our clients would come to us on-site, but during the pandemic, we’ve obviously been very limited in our ability to do that. Many clients wanted to continue with telephone interactions. We also encourage staff to use video conferencing with clients.

The OCAN actually provided an opportunity for workers to suggest trying a video conference. The workers can tell clients, “We’ve got to do this assessment. It’s a little more involved than some of our other conversations, so it might be easier if we could do it through video so that we can both make some notes at the same time and go back and forth more easily. And I can share my screen so you can see what I’m writing down.”

This approach opened a few clients’ eyes to the benefits of using video conferencing and a number of them were then comfortable with continuing to interact with their workers that way. OCAN also provided an opportunity for us to encourage clients to come in and see us in person and they get a lot from having that human connection.

We’ve also now shifted our recovery assessment training to virtual format, which allowed us to continue to train our new staff as well as a lot of students. And our Mental Health Education department is actually now offering the training virtually outside of our organization, which has definitely expanded during COVID.

Brett: We had to switch to the virtual model fast. Within my program, Recovery West, we are based on social interactions, so the whole point of our program is to meet face to face. When COVID-19 took that away, we had to think of how to incorporate these practices while following the restrictions. We didn’t stop doing OCAN. At first, we only did them with clients by phone. I would have the assessment open on my computer and we would run through the questions together.

We now have video appointments so that makes it easier but few clients use this option. Many struggle to get adequate internet access at home or even access to a computer, so a lot of the time I end up doing it with them on the phone. A lot of folks live with other people, with their parents or roommates, so they don’t want to use video in case someone walks in and sees us. It’s actually more confidential to stick to the phone because they can either go in the backyard or go for a walk during our conversation. To reduce the barriers, I get their consent and I fill out the OCAN for them while they give their answers on the phone, voice to voice.

We can still see some clients in person, with approval and if it’s necessary. A lot of times we can meet in the community if it’s not too cold to go outside and have a meeting from a distance. But as much as I would love to see clients in person, most are more comfortable doing it on the phone for the time being.

We have also created a fillable consumer self-assessment portion of the OCAN. I think it gives clients some power, where they’re able to check their own boxes and do it for themselves. So that’s been very helpful.

Sweedian: Initially, one of the challenges was that not every client has a computer or a phone. Our agency has done a lot of work so that we’re able to go into homes. But at the same time, clients don’t necessarily want us in their homes, even if we’re in full PPE.

I did some of the assessments over the phone. Telus donated tons of phones to us that we provided to clients who didn’t have one. The clients provided their response and I entered it in the assessment.

I also emailed the blank fillable version of the OCAN self-assessment to clients who are good with technology, and if they were comfortable, they filled it out while we went through it on the phone. I also sent them their previous self-assessment because I think it’s good for them to remember what they did six months ago.

We have fillable PDFs and everything is password protected. We ask for consent to send it via email if they’re OK with that. But the password protect is the main thing. I think it’s important for us as an agency, we have a very strict privacy policy. I let clients know that ahead of time, how this is taking place.

Sometimes I dropped a form off at the client’s home. You don’t have to go into their homes. Now that it’s getting a little bit better, we’re going to clients’ homes with PPE if they allow us to.

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