Karen Penaranda and Doriann Duncan-Johnson
Registered nurse Doriann Duncan-Johnson (left) and improvement analyst Karen Penaranda are members of the mobile phone equity team in MGH's Emergency Department.

How MGH’s mobile phone equity project is increasing access to care for patients in need

A cellphone is an indispensable part of many people’s lives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when friends and family aren’t gathering as often and many health, social and emergency services are being offered virtually, the device has become even more critical.

“The need for telecommunications — to be connected — has exponentially risen with the onset of this pandemic,” says Dr. Kate Lazier, emergency physician at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH).

It’s why Dr. Lazier is leading a mobile phone equity project in MGH’s Emergency Department (ED). Launched in December, the initiative provides cellphones for individuals visiting the ED who require one to access test results, follow-up appointments and information about complementary health and social services and supports in the community.

More than 200 smartphones and flip phones are available to accommodate a range of technological competency. The smartphones are Wi-Fi-enabled and both phone types come equipped with up to 24 months of unlimited talk and text.

Mobile phone
Both flip phones and smartphones are available for patients as part of the mobile phone equity project to accommodate a range of technological competency.

Dr. Lazier says the initiative helps increase digital equity, an issue that has long been seen in the ED and other areas of care in the community.

“In 2019, our records of hospital show about 1,900 people registered in MGH’s Emergency Department without a cellphone,” she says. “These include people experiencing homelessness and those who are marginally housed. In addition, some phone numbers that were provided are attached to a patient’s family or friend, rather than the patient themselves. This makes ensuring continuity of care difficult because when you can’t reach a patient to communicate test results or connect them to follow-up care, it becomes an urgent, potentially dangerous situation.”

The mobile phone equity project will continue until all phones are issued to patients in need. It’s supported by surge funding from the Ministry of Health which enables initiatives that improve health outcomes during winter “surge” season, when the healthcare system typically sees increased demand in services. 

A research study is also planned for the initiative which will help the ED’s mobile phone equity team determine to what degree the phones are able to improve care for patients.

“We know that, for some patients, having access to a reliable phone makes a huge difference in whether or not they’re able to receive follow-up care,” says Karen Penaranda, improvement analyst in MGH’s ED. “By analyzing the data around this project, we’ll be able to measure the exact impact of the phones and identify opportunities for improvement.”

Dr. Kate Lazier
Dr. Kate Lazier, emergency physician at MGH, is leading the mobile phone equity project in the ED.

Dr. Lazier says she’d like to see the initiative become a year-round program throughout MGH and at other health and social services providers in the city. “This isn’t just a need at our institution,” she says. “Ensuring digital equity for our patients so they can access the care they need should be a priority at all facilities.”

She adds that she’d like to see the project expanded across organizations within East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), the Ontario Health Team (OHT) serving East Toronto that MGH is a part of. These organizations include family practices, community health centres, home care providers, supportive housing agencies and other health and social services providers in East Toronto.

“In many cases, we’re taking care of the same patients that circulate between our different sites,” Dr. Lazier says. “We’re already collaborating across the system so it would make a lot of sense, moving forward, to expand this initiative across the East and connect it to a wider virtual care program.”

She says increasing access to mobile devices for patients in need is one way to ensure the local healthcare system is accessible to all. “At the end of the day, what we do in the Emergency Department is a part of a larger system,” she adds. “And to help that system work for everyone, people need access to a phone. It’s as simple as that.”

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