Ontario service puts sick in touch with trained nurses



Vakis Boutsalis/for Metro Toronto


Telehealth’s Sarah Brown worked at a hospital in Brantford.


With walk-in-clinics and hospital waiting rooms overflowing with patients, Ontarians can take solace in the fact that there are up to 60 registered nurses standing buy to take their call at any time of day.

“It’s a single-queue system where all calls come into the one toll-free number, and the calls are placed in line for the next available nurse,” explains Josie Barbita, director of operations for Clinidata, the service provider of Telehealth services in Ontario.

With call centres in North Bay, Sudbury, Barrie, London and Toronto, Telehealth is equipped to handle up to 3,500 calls per day.

“In the busy season, (each nurse) can get up to 40 calls a day in a 10-hour shift,” explains Sarah Brown, who works in the Telehealth branch in Etobicoke.

Nurses ask callers about their symptoms and try and zero in on key pieces of information.

Each nurse is equipped with a database full of medical information, and if computers crash, there are binders full of knowledge within arm’s reach to assist them with their diagnosis.

Should the nurse decide that the caller needs immediate medical attention, Telehealth can automatically link the caller with Emergency Medical Services who will dispatch an ambulance.

Born into a family of nurses, Brown says she is happy to be working in an environment that continues to challenge her as a nurse.

“We have to rely on what callers say, as well as what they are not telling us,” says Brown, explaining the complexities involved with diagnosing someone over the phone.

“It’s difficult sometimes because we don’t find out what happens to the callers after. We advise them to go to the emergency room, if they say they’ll go, there is no real way to know that they did what they said (they would do).”

There is also the added challenge of dealing with a wide range of patients with a seemingly endless array of symptoms.

“You have all sorts of (patients) you have to deal with, from two-year-old babies to the dying older grandfather.”

Dealing with the challenges of the job is made easier, Brown says, by the supportive nature of her co-workers who she turns to for consultation. “This is a fantastic place to work.”