Earlier this month, Sean McTavish’s three-year-old son woke up sick with inflamed red and white tonsils. McTavish and his wife were concerned it could be a bacterial infection that required antibiotics, so they called the family doctor.
That’s when the family challenges began. After three days of trying to assess his son’s condition, McTavish was finally asked to clear his son’s throat in the parking lot of a clinic.
“Throughout this process, after three days of actively trying, no health care professional was able to see my son’s tonsils in person. This is the state of health care in Ottawa. Literal parking remedy.”
Ontario’s healthcare system is poised for a summer crisis, with overcapacity emergency departments — patients now wait an average of 20 hours in the emergency room before being admitted, according to the provincial NDP — and exacerbating shortages. staff across the province.
Children are among those feeling the effects – from difficulty finding primary care, long hospital waits, to a lack of access to crisis-level mental health treatment.
McTavish said the lack of timely face-to-face care for children, like his son, who have symptoms consistent with COVID, is yet another sign of how children have been left out during the pandemic.
When McTavish called his family doctor’s clinic, they told him they wouldn’t be able to see the boy for at least 13 days and only then if the sore throat was gone, because that could be a symptom of COVID-19. They suggested that the family go to the emergency room or an outpatient clinic.
McTavish said he knew his son’s situation was not an emergency and that CHEO is over capacity, so they didn’t want to go there.
CHEO is indeed under unprecedented pressure right now. The children’s hospital canceled and rescheduled some surgeries and procedures this week after a record number of patients were waiting for emergency beds over the weekend, causing a “traffic jam effect” across the hospital.
On Wednesday, the hospital’s inpatient units dropped slightly from a weekend high of 122% of capacity to 112%, said hospital spokesman Patrick Moore, but remained “super busy.” Hospitalization is where most patients admitted to the emergency hospital need to go and when there is no space, they wait to be admitted, leading to longer wait times and traffic jams. The number of patients waiting for emergency beds has also dropped over the weekend, but wait times remain long – around 7pm on Thursday afternoon.
McTavish was directed to a clinic where he and his son stood outside for three hours waiting to see someone. When they got to the front of the line, they were told they couldn’t get in because of their son’s symptoms and McTavish was asked to clear his son’s throat in the parking lot. McTavish, who is a researcher for the federal government, said he was concerned that he could not swab properly.
“I did the best I could,” he said. “I’m not a nurse. It’s asking a lot of a parent without information or training.”
In the end, the boy didn’t have a bacterial infection, according to the swab, and the sore throat ran its course.
McTavish said he later learned that children who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 — including fever and sore throats that are common in childhood illnesses — can be seen at one of the COVID-care clinics still operated by Ottawa Public Health, but that , he said, is not widely known or advertised.
After more than two years of a pandemic during which children suffered disproportionately, McTavish believes the health care system continues to let them down. His family experience is an example.
“Parents and their children have borne the brunt of lockdowns, PCR testing, isolation and work-related impacts over the course of two years. Now, we have been abandoned by clinics that are denying in-person care to sick children.
“We are really failing our kids right now.”
He said clinics are making a choice not to see sick children in person, despite Public Health Ontario providing guidance to clinics on how to adapt care to care for patients with symptoms associated with COVID-19.
He said he doesn’t blame doctors or nurses who are working hard, but criticizes the health bureaucracy, political and public health leaders “who are deliberately ignoring the main challenges of our health care system; and the continual downgrading of children’s needs”.
Ottawa family doctor Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth noted that family medicine clinics also face severe staff shortages and staff are at risk when they see symptomatic patients, which can make the situation worse.
She said most of what’s happening in Ottawa causing a sore throat is viral and doesn’t last long, so waiting a few days is probably best. If the symptoms lasted longer, she said she would swab the porch and treat it with antibiotics if it came out positive.
Primary care and hospital care are not the only areas where there is growing concern that children may not be able to get the timely help they need.
Pediatricians in Ottawa say they are overwhelmed with patients in need of mental health treatment who are unable to get timely care. Children wait five to six times longer for mental health services in Ontario than adults, said Dr. Andrzej Rochowski, chief of pediatrics at Queensway Carleton Hospital and a member of the Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network.
Mental health problems among children and youth, including eating disorders, have soared during the pandemic.
Rochowski said he and his colleagues are having to act as psychiatrists and prescribe drugs they wouldn’t have prescribed in the past because their patients are unable to get timely mental health care.
Only the sickest patients qualify for publicly funded care – if available – but now even private mental health care is “saturated”, he said. Even the wait to evaluate a patient can be as long as a year.
“We all have our feature list, but these have kind of dried up,” he said. Pediatricians are treating patients medically — with drugs some have never used before — because the wait for therapy is too long.
“I have to give six-year-olds antidepressants because they don’t work,” he said.
Dr. Kelly Zwicker, who founded the Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network to enable pediatricians to work together to address the challenges of the pandemic, said 80% of her referrals are related to mental health. While patients wait, pediatricians continue to care for them.
“I’m not a psychotherapist, but I’m the person who checks them every week,” she said.
She said she directs some of her anxiety patients to online resources because they can’t get timely treatment. She says there is no end in sight to the current situation.
“We all knew this was coming and we know it’s not going to end anytime soon.”
The lack of timely access to family medicine is likely to make children worse off, she said.
Rochowski also says that children and youth remain in the background in the province, even as their health needs grow. Mental health care was barely discussed during the recent provincial election campaign, he noted.
“Children and youth seem to be an afterthought and the election was just a demonstration of that.”