In the early 1990s, tucked away in a quiet hallway off the IWK Health’s Emergency Department, the “IWK Poison Centre” was hidden in the midst of daily hustle and bustle. With limited staff, the Centre offered its services to Nova Scotians from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. In response to calls, staff would reference their several textbooks, Rolodexes and look up information on a Microfiche. At the end of the day, when staff headed home for the night, there was a little red phone on the desk of the Emergency Department that would ring after-hours and incoming calls were answered by the ED staff. By 1992, the IWK “Regional“ Poison Centre had taken on P.E.I. and offered 24/7 services. Almost 20 years later, in 2023, the now rebranded “Atlantic Canada Poison Centre” (ACPC) provides full service to Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador, in addition to assisting New Brunswick health care providers.
The ACPC is staffed with highly-trained professionals. Nurses and pharmacists make up the multidisciplinary team, supported by two medical toxicologists and a team of on-call physicians serving as medical consultants. Beyond providing care for the public, the center has also become an important resource for many healthcare professionals. “Pharmacists, Paramedics, nursing homes, nurses, doctors, even veterinarians call us with questions about different exposures and medications,” says Mary-Anne Carew, one of the centre’s longtime RNs and Certified Specialists in Poison Information. “I’m not sure if people understand the highly specialized training, resources and knowledge we have here in the center.”
People often assume the Atlantic Canada Poison Centre and its services are only available to children and families since it was formerly called the IWK Regional Poison Centre and is in the IWK, but this could not be further from the truth. “We have such a wide variety of calls that we get daily,” says Jill Duncan, Team Leader and Certified Specialist in Poison Information. “ Accidentally doubling your dose of medication, being exposed to chemicals in the workplace, or even mixing household cleaners can all be reasons to call us. Keeping people healthy and safe is our number one priority, so from infants to the elderly, we’re here to help.”
When calling the Atlantic Poison Centre, callers can expect to answer the who, what, and when of the situation. “We often ask for a name and a phone number to call back if we were to get disconnected,” says Carew, “we want everyone to feel safe calling the ACPC. Parents can sometimes feel embarrassed or anxious when phoning if their child has ingested something poisonous, but mistakes can happen and children are very quick! Even in just a matter of seconds, we see it every day. Our only focus when you call us is to ensure the poisoned person is okay.” If you think someone has been poisoned, phone the ACPC for advice. Almost 90% of calls received from home can be monitored and treated effectively at home, and may not require a visit to an Emergency Department. Considering the strain the healthcare system has been under since the pandemic began, services like the Atlantic Canada Poison Centre, provide an important role, which can result in people being able to stay at home, is crucial.
Despite their evolution from the days of the little red phone, the Atlantic Canada Poison Centre has left a lasting impression on emergency departments across the province. First introduced across Nova Scotia in 2009, antidote kits provide immediate access to antidotes as well as a simple product manual for administering them to patients. “These have been critical to our provincial E.D. staff, especially in rural areas,” says Duncan, “in time-sensitive situations, these kits can be potentially life-saving.”
With Poison Prevention Week around the corner, the ACPC wants people to know that their services are always available, “we are here for all ages and all poison-related reasons,” Carew says, “we are the experts in this field and are here to help. If you ever find yourself questioning whether or not to reach out to us, call us. It’s important to be safe rather than sorry.”
You can contact the Atlantic Canada Poison Centre at 1-800-565-8161 in Nova Scotia and/or P.E.I. In Newfoundland and Labrador, you can contact the center at 1-844-764-7669.