Ontario’s kids are back to school, let’s get them back to good health

It is time to sound the alarm on Ontario’s crisis in children’s health care.

Wait lists are synonymous with health care in Ontario. It’s an unfortunate reality we’ve succumb to as the fractures in our health care system deepen.

More than 160,000 children have languished for years without support, often suffering in silence while insurmountable wait lists grow. We now fear that while treatment backlogs mount as a result of the pandemic, our system will never catch up. Behind those numbers are real children and families who are waiting for support.

There are critical windows during a child’s development where treatment must occur and if missed, the opportunity is lost. Without timely care, physical, developmental and mental health challenges can follow children into adulthood. Barriers to accessing care are even higher for children from Black, Indigenous and racialized communities.

Whether it’s spinal surgery for children with scoliosis or acute anxiety, when kids are not treated in a timely manner, their symptoms worsen, jeopardizing their futures. What may have begun as a mild symptom can rapidly evolve into an emergency.

For years we’ve raised our concerns with decision-makers, but now COVID-19 has exacerbated existing fractures in our health care system and put front-line providers in untenable situations. Too many children’s futures are at risk. Health-care providers have stepped up and innovated by offering virtual appointments and more, but now it’s time for the government to match our efforts.

Our health care system is at its breaking point. And while we are rightly focusing on those most vulnerable to COVID-19 — we have neglected to ensure that we were protecting our province’s future.

Before the pandemic, more than 28,000 children in Ontario were on wait lists for mental health services and 80,000 children were waiting for rehabilitation services. Over 30,000 hospital surgeries, appointments and procedures are backlogged or cancelled altogether. Some kids will wait an astonishing two and a half years for surgeries — far beyond what is clinically acceptable.

Our health care professionals caring for our kids are doing everything in their capacity to help, but they can’t keep up with the growing number of children without the proper resources. The challenges brought on by COVID-19 have made a difficult situation even worse.

Parents across the country are already witnessing the repercussions of the pandemic on our children’s mental health, development, and physical well-being. From delayed appointments for critical rehabilitation services to postponed surgeries to supporting kids with significant mental health challenges, they have been left without support.

Since the start of the pandemic, almost 60 per cent of parents have noted behavioural changes in their children, ranging from outbursts or extreme irritability to drastic changes in mood, behaviour and personality. Significant changes like these can be signs of mental illness. Now there is a new wave of children who may not receive the support they need in time.

Some children with disabilities are waiting for years for rehabilitation services, including physio and occupational therapy, to support their success. Between 55 per cent and 77 per cent of all pediatric surgeries at children’s hospitals have been cancelled, in addition to more than 30,000 cancelled procedures and appointments. While many appointments have been successfully moved to virtual, not all can be, requiring an in-person visit to the hospital. Without additional resources, hospitals will not be able to address the backlog.

Our kids are counting on us, as parents and as their advocates, to save their lives and ensure a bright future.

On behalf of the Children’s Health Coalition, a collective of Ontario’s leading children’s health care providers, we want to make clear: the window for critical early intervention is closing.

We are calling on the Government of Ontario to make a crucial $375 million investment to alleviate the suffering of 160,000 kids in Ontario, by reducing wait times for mental health supports, hospital surgeries and procedures, rehabilitation and developmental services, and support home care solutions.

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Our children are at greater risk of death from delayed treatment for mental and physical health challenges than they are of contracting COVID-19. For some, these investments will be a matter of life and death.

Our kids need swift action before it’s too late.

Bruce Squires is president, McMaster Children’s Hospital and writing on behalf of Ontario’s Children’s Hospitals. Kimberly Moran is chief executive officer of Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Jennifer Churchill is chief executive officer of Empowered Kids Ontario.

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