Three former Ontario ministers of health share why the next government needs to make kids count and commit to an immediate action plan for children’s health.
The pain or discomfort of any child is heartbreaking to see. Children deserve to laugh, play and be joyful. But for many children across Ontario, the wait for access to health care has been long for some time. And as children wait—for surgeries, rehabilitation, treatment, and even an assessment delayed by COVID—joy is the last thing they experience.
In fact, the evidence shows that Ontario’s children have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As health ministers in NDP, PC and Liberal governments, we all agree that kids deserve to be on a path of lifelong health and wellbeing. We may disagree on some issues, but children’s health is not one of them. And children in this province are suffering.
This is totally unacceptable.
The most recent data has shown that a child is 50 per cent more likely than an adult to wait beyond the clinically acceptable wait time for surgery. Children can wait twice as long as adults for an MRI, delaying critical diagnostic work and further delaying the actual care they need.
In some regions of the province, where very few adults are waiting for occupational therapy, physiotherapy, or speech and language therapy, there are thousands of kids waiting for community-based rehabilitation services that would help them reach developmental milestones and could change the trajectory of their lives.
Simply put, our children’s needs are not being met.
Today, in Ontario, there are over 16,000 children on surgical waitlists across the province. Only one in three kids receives community-based rehabilitation services within the clinical standard, while the majority wait almost three years to access care.
Prior to the pandemic, there were over 28,000 kids on waitlists for mental health care—a number that has only increased in the last two years.
And there are numerous stories out there from families across Ontario about their children’s suffering due to delays in treatment.
There’s Genesis, whose years long delayed hip surgery has her on medication to manage pain and sleepless nights. And Liam, whose months long wait for spinal surgery caused breathing impairments. And there’s Lucy, whose parents were told it would take a year to get her help with her eating disorder while she picked at very little food.
Overall, children and youth have had vital health care delayed—in acute care, in child development and rehabilitation, and in mental health services. Critical early intervention windows have been missed that align with key developmental milestones to optimize children’s physical, psychological and social development. Every day matters in the life of a child.
Sadly, long wait times, staffing shortages, and limited resources are not new barriers to timely care; they’ve just been made exponentially worse by the pandemic. That’s why the next party that forms government must commit to an immediate and comprehensive plan to address the pandemic’s effect on children’s health. We know that the time is now to develop a plan that brings people together regardless of political stripe—a plan that is fully funded to address children’s physical and mental health.
Children’s hospitals, mental health agencies and rehabilitation centres have laid the groundwork for a path forward and have put together a reasonable and meaningful plan to address these issues. The Children’s Health Coalition’s Make Kids Count Action Plan would address the effects of the pandemic and improve the health of Ontario’s children. But the plan needs the political will and capital to be successful. Within the first 100 days of the mandate, the next government should convene cross-sectoral participants at a Children’s Health Summit, commit to developing a children’s health strategy—the first of its kind in Ontario—and, most importantly, invest $1B over the next four years. There is too much at risk if we don’t act now.
We know that everyone wants the best for the province’s children. Children’s health is not a partisan issue. It needs to be a priority for the next government because it is the right thing to do. Our children’s health simply cannot wait.
Frances Lankin served as Ontario's Minister of Health from 1991 to 1993, Elizabeth Witmer from 1997 to 2001 and Deb Matthews from 2009 to 2014. OpEd available by clicking here.