'We need it now': As ER visits among children rise, Montreal parents want hotline reinstated

Montreal public health officials are considering whether to bring back a special hotline for families with sick children to get them speedy appointments with a doctor as the city's hospitals see an increase in visits to pediatric emergency rooms.

The "one call, one appointment" hotline was launched on Sept. 28, 2021 and was a valuable lifeline for parents of kids under 17 years old with non-urgent illnesses during the fourth wave of the pandemic when hospitals were under increased strain, they say.

A short phone call would get a parent a doctor's appointment in a few hours, in most cases.

But as ERs are seeing more children show up with non-urgent conditions, usually as a last-resort option for parents who couldn't find a doctor, there are calls to bring back the phone service, which ended on March 31.

Associate director To Nhu Nguyen at the DRMG, who works on access to front-line services, confirmed there's a recent rise in pediatric ER visits.

Nguyen told CTV News Tuesday that "nothing is off the table" when asked if the program will be reinstated. 

"If we can replicate learnings from the measures that we tested during the pandemic, such as the 'one call, one appointment,' we obviously will resume it if the need arises," she said in an interview. 

The service was always meant to be a temporary fix to ease pressure at over-capacity ERs,she said.

'I WANTED TO SCREAM'

Some Montreal parents want public health to bring the service back with more urgency, describing lengthy waits in recent weeks in the city's children's hospitals.

"It worked. Why not bring it back? And we need it now, because there is a major service gap," said Vivien Carli.

Carli said she waited for a "gruelling" 16 hours in the emergency room on May 9 with her 10-month-old son, who at the time had a three-day fever.

She told CTV News she checked with about a dozen clinics if they could see her son after speaking with a nurse at Info-Santé 811, but she couldn't find an appointment within the next 36 hours.

That's when she decided to go to the Montreal Children's Hospital out of desperation, even though she knew her son's condition wasn't an emergency.

"Within, I think, the 10-hour mark, I thought I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream," she said. "It was not just myself. Many parents were extremely upset, many parents left not knowing what to do and just couldn't endure it."

Having returned home from the long hospital visit, she posted about her experience on a Facebook group for Montreal moms and was soon overwhelmed by the response. She said some parents reported waiting up to 23 hours in the ER a week earlier.

"They didn't know what to do. They couldn't leave because they felt that they were a bad parent for leaving. But they have no option," she said.

"Parents... told me they were crying in the emergency room, they were desperate," she said. "No one was there to help them and there was nothing they could do."

PETITION LAUNCHED

Alexandra Bogdanova went through a similar experience with her three-year-old son on May 4.

She went to the Montreal Children's Hospital after her son had a fever for five days and couldn't find an appointment at any of the clinics nearby.

She said she waited more than nine hours before seeing a doctor.

"There was some point when I actually started to cry," she told CTV on Tuesday. "I couldn't take it anymore. It was crazy. It was huge amounts of people, a huge amount of sick kids."

After finally seeing a doctor, her son was prescribed some antibiotics. But after finishing the seven-day drug regimen, the fever came back, she said.

"Traumatized" from the ER wait, she decided to go to a private clinic this time and pay $360 out of pocket for a doctor, who prescribed a stronger dose of antibiotics, which did the trick.

Because of the "anger" and "frustration" she went through and hearing other parents' stories, Carli wanted to do something about it, so she started an online petition.

She also wrote an open letter to Premier François Legault and Health Minister Christian Dubé, pleading for the "immediate" reinstatement of the hotline.

The service was widely considered a success. In about six months, it helped parents book 45,000 appointments with an average wait time on the phone of just over two minutes, according to Montreal Public Health.

More importantly, Nguyen said, it helped reduce the volume in the ER at the Montreal Children's Hospital and Ste-Justine Hospital by 15 to 20 per cent. Overall, she hailed the program as a win.

"If you spoke with emergency department staff and emergency department physicians, what they'll tell you is that that that non-negligible percentage allowed them to really focus on patients who really needed emergency-room care," Nguyen said.

"And it helped with staff well-being, it helped with patients who really needed emergency care and it helped with admissions."

The François Legault government announced a major pre-election reform of health-care services, including a plan to set up a phone line, called GAP, to put people in touch with health-care professionals for consultations. It has not yet been launched.

By Tuesday evening, Carli's petition had collected 882 signatures.

"It’s been frustratingly difficult and slow to find help for my infant and three year old since my paediatrician [sic] retired and we lost access to our emergency kids clinic," wrote one person who signed the petition.

"When we have an issue that is urgent but not an emergency we have nowhere to turn to. This is unacceptable for our kids."

"This service is needed now!" wrote another person. "It only makes good sense to keep this as a normal practice."

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