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

A statement posted late Tuesday afternoon on the Hospital for Sick Children's website says funding through grants and donations has dropped to zero over the last three years, forcing SickKids to shut down its Motherisk helplines for pregnant women and new mothers.

Moms are being referred to MotherToBaby, but the organization worries it might not be equipped for calls

The Hospital for Sick Children announced the cancellation of the Motherisk program on April 16, 2019, after almost 35 years in operation. (CBC)

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 information to pregnant women and new mothers on the possible effects of medications, 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 on the risks of consuming alcohol, nicotine, and recreational drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy during pregnancy and while 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.

The Motherisk website is no longer available to offer counselling to pregnant women and new mothers. It was removed by the Hospital for Sick Children on April 16, 2019. (Motherisk website)

"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 describes the Motherisk helpline as a 'an invaluable resource' for pregnant women and new mothers. (St. Michael's Hospital)

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 health-care 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 announcement on the hospital's website also offered an explanation for the evaporation of donations and grants.

"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 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."

Dr. Gideon Koren retired from SickKids in 2015 when the hospital closed the Motherisk lab. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)

The review concluded that Koren's lab results compromised the fairness of child protection and criminal investigations. More than 1,000 cases were affected. 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 counselling services that were provided by Motherisk."

The Hospital for Sick Children stated that "rebranding" the program isn't a possibility.

The Hospital for Sick Children said the number of calls to the Motherisk helplines 'has remained high, and closing the service was not an easy decision.' Counsellors stopped answering the phones on April 15, 2019. (Motherisk website )

"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," it said.

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

In a written statement to CBC News, So-Yan Seto, the health unit's associate director of child health and development, 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, such as the U.S.-based MotherToBaby, if they have questions.

But Dr. Christina Chambers, program director of MotherToBaby, is worried the organization might not be able to meet the need.

"We are certainly not staffed in the U.S. to take on 200 calls a day instantaneously," she said in an interview Wednesday with CBC News. "We are discussing this very actively right now about how we might respond in the interim."

The organization does want to ensure women have access to critical information they might need for their pregnancy or while they're breastfeeding, she said, and has a website for mothers and health-care providers, as well as members of the general public.

Nevertheless, the loss of Motherisk could mean a surge of calls it's not equipped to handle, says Chambers.

"It's a huge loss."