Dr. Somers wearing mask, holding phone
Dr. Andrea Somers says the COVID-19 pandemic has "amplified" the challenges of delivering good quality healthcare to people who cannot be reached because they don’t have a phone. (Photo: UHN)

For most of us, a mobile phone is a key accessory, a tool, a way to stay connected.

For a vulnerable person, it can be a lifeline.

With that in mind, Dr. Andrea Somers and her colleagues in UHN's two Emergency Departments (ED) at Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital are collecting old mobile phones and giving them to patients who are homeless, struggling with mental health or substance use, and socially isolated. The hope is the phone will give them better access to medical care and social services.

"It's really about health equity," Dr. Somers says. "During the best of times it's a problem trying to deliver good quality healthcare to someone who you can't reach, who doesn't have a phone. The pandemic has only amplified that need."

Results of COVID-19 tests can take several days. If there's no way to contact a patient, then it's difficult to follow-up. And, for anyone who is positive for the coronavirus and needs to self-isolate, the challenge becomes trying to access services such as 211 or a virtual doctor without a phone.

"There's a real public health issue at play here," Dr. Somers says.

'Everybody wants to get on board to do this'

For several months, Dr. Somers says, she'd been thinking about trying to collect and give away to patients old flip phones and early-model smartphones – ones with no street value – in hopes of keeping them connected. But the onset of COVID-19 "forced my hand" to get it started, she says.

A friend helped her get in touch with Bell Mobility, which donated 150 SIM cards and 50 smartphones, and the "Phone Connect" project was born. Dr. Somers has continued to seek donations of the old phones – put on factory reset, personal information and SIM card removed, charging cord included.

Her goal is to get at least 150 phones to be able to make use of the donated SIM cards. However, she says she has also had interest from ED colleagues at hospitals around the Greater Toronto Area and even from other provinces and countries.

"Everybody wants to get on board and do this," says Dr. Somers says, adding that about 30 phones have been given out since late March.

"The patients are shocked," she says. "They feel uplifted, dignified, treated like a human being."

After one month, patients will be called to participate in a structured survey. Their attendance at follow-up appointments will also be monitored and compared with those not given phones.

Improving access to healthcare and social connection

Giving free phones to vulnerable people is an idea that stretches far beyond COVID-19.

Dr. Somers recalls a patient she treated last year in the ED for a broken wrist. Homeless and a substance user, he didn't return for follow-up care – and because he had no phone, no one at the hospital could contact him – which put him at risk of developing a crippling arthritic condition.

Eventually, Dr. Somers saw the man when he ended up back in the ED. She discussed with him her idea of giving out old phones. She says the patient not only liked it, he said having the device would be of real value to him to stay connected.

UHN, through its Social Medicine Program and other initiatives, has been critically examining how to better support the most marginalized members of the community.

Dr. Kate Hayman, Co-lead for Disadvantaged People in the ED, says that "the COVID-19 crisis has emphasized so many of the challenges that our patients face.

"The Phone Connect project is a fantastic example of how a pragmatic solution can dramatically improve access to healthcare and social connection."

Adds Dr. Somers: "You can't have equity in this day and age without communication."

To donate, please mail factory reset phones AND chargers (no SIM cards) to:

Toronto General Hospital,

C/O Dr. A Somers,

200 Elizabeth St., R. Fraser Elliot Building,

Ground Floor, Room 480,

Toronto, ON M5G 2C4

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