TORONTO -- They are the first point of contact for many of society's most vulnerable when they get sick, and at one Toronto hospital's emergency room, they're testing a new treatment.

"The prescription is a phone," Dr. Andrea Somers, who works inside the ER at Toronto General Hospital, said.

"These people need to be connected to our health care system, and they need access to all sorts of social and medical resources that you can't reach during a pandemic if you're not connected."

Somers has started a donation drive collecting old cell phones, like flip-phones and early smartphones. The phones are being given to patients who are currently phoneless.

"People who fall in to this category of not having phones, being vulnerable, there's a real health equity issue there," Somers said. "They're not able to take care of our healthcare system the way better connected people are able to."

The idea was born before the pandemic, but is now being put into practice. The timing is key, because as it takes several days to get COVID-19 test results, having a phone makes it easier for healthcare workers to contact the patient to inform them of their status, and the steps they should follow for treatment.

The program is aimed at helping those who are homeless, suffering from addiction or mental health issues, and others who may have difficulty accessing services during these unusual times.

"It's not like they can call a neighbour and ask them to bring them groceries," Somers said. "They can't call a doctor or EMS if they run into trouble, they can't call 211 for city resources and worse yet we can't inform them of their COVID status."

Somers said that Bell Mobility stepped up immediately when asked and donated 50 smart phones and 150 SIM cards. She also said she's had calls from people across the city and the country both looking to donate and looking to replicate the program at their facility. 


As for those who worry that the recipients would try and pawn their gifted phones, rather than use them for their intended purposes, Somers doesn't agree. 

"Flip phones have so little street value that I think people value connectivity more than they would value the potential financial benefit of the phone," she said

People are asked to make sure the phones are in working condition and are donated with charging cords. They're also asked to remove old SIM cards and wipe any personal information off of the phone before donating. The phones will not be returned once donated.

Somers said the gift of what many people consider an obsolete piece of technology is a lifeline to those who don't have it. 

"These are really disenfranchised people who automatically feel like someone is caring for them,” Somers said. "They light up, they feel valued suddenly and they're incredibly grateful."  

Donations of old cell phones are being accepted by mail at the following address:

Toronto General Hospital
c/o Dr. A. Somers
200 Elizabeth St.
R Fraser Elliot Building, Ground floor, Room 480
Toronto, Ont.
M5G 2C4