SickKids shuts down Motherisk helplines after grants, donations ‘reduced to zero’

The Hospital for Sick Children has shut down its Motherisk helplines for new mothers and pregnant women.

The Motherisk program had a call centre and website that offered advice to pregnant women and new mothers on the possible effects of medications and drugs and household products on their babies.

The announcement to end the program was posted on the hospital website.

“Grants and donations have been reduced to zero,” the post reads.

“Without sustainable, secure funding and absent an alternative, reputable organization to host and fund the Helplines, SickKids has made the difficult decision to close the program,” said Dr. David Naylor, SickKids interim president and CEO.

Motherisk also operated an alcohol and substance use helpline that provided information about the safety or risk of alcohol, nicotine and recreational drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Its website states Motherisk had counselled nearly a million women, their families and health professionals over the last 35 years, and spoke to about 200 callers each day.

“SickKids also believes the program needs to be reinvented, set up with a clear national mandate, and tied more closely to the obstetrics and primary care communities,” Naylor wrote.

“Physicians and scientists on our staff would be very happy to work with any new host organizations.”

Dr. Howard Berger, the head of maternal fetal medicine and the deputy chief of obstetrics at St. Michael’s Hospital, told CBC News the Motherisk closure is “very distressing.”

“I am obviously responding with dismay because I think … this was a resource that was used extensively and now there will be a huge void, a gap in clinical care that I don’t know how we are going to fill,” he said.

“Many women will stop medications instinctively when they are pregnant or breastfeeding without getting adequate information,” Berger added.

“In our healthcare system, unfortunately, it’s not always easy to get a hold of your obstetrician or your family physician, and Motherisk was a great resource.”

“The difficulty in seeking private support for the program reflected adverse publicity arising from concerns about the quality of work carried out by a hair analysis laboratory that also carried the Motherisk name,” the announcement on the hospital’s website said.

That statement referred to a lab run by Dr.Gideon Koren, a physician who hurt the brand’s name in 2015, after an independent review found that drug and alcohol hair tests done at his lab were “unreliable.”

That review concluded Koren’s lab results compromised the fairness of child protection and criminal investigations. More than a 1,000 cases were impacted. The lab has since closed, and Koren has agreed not to practise medicine again in Ontario.

In the days before the announcement to shut down the Motherisk helplines, an online petition circulated to try to save the program.

It called on the Hospital for Sick Children “or any potential provincial sponsor, to maintain this outstanding programme …To lose the Motherisk programme would be a tragic loss for us all”

The petition was signed by more than 1,000 clinicians as well as some of the pregnant women and mothers they treat.

Berger also added his signature.

“Someone has to step up here and create a newly branded program — you can call it whatever you want — that provides those counseling services that were provided by Motherisk.”

The Hospital for Sick Children stated that “rebranding” the program isn’t a possibility.

“Consideration was given to renaming and rebranding the Helplines. However, questions quickly arose as to whether this service was best hosted at a paediatric hospital.”

Toronto Public Health also believes the Motherisk helpline provided a valuable service.

In a written statement to CBC News, So-Yan Seto, the board’s associate director of child health and development sent CBC News this statement, said Toronto Public Health considers it “an important resource for our clients as it supports evidence-based decision-making on medication and substance exposures that support positive child health outcomes.”

The Hospital for Sick Children is encouraging pregnant women and nursing mothers to contact other reputable organizations like the US-based MothertoBaby if they have questions. That organization has a website that offers information to mothers and health care providers, as well as members of the general public.

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