Pandemic thrusts Health Links – Info Santé into the spotlight
By Mike Daly
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, May 11, 2020
There's nothing like a great performance to elevate a long-time supporting player to sudden stardom.
That's certainly been the case for Health Links - Info Santé, the flagship program of the Provincial Health Contact Centre at Misericordia Health Centre.
Established in 1997 as the first bilingual phone-based nursing triage system in Canada, Health Links – Info Santé is available to all Manitobans, operating around-the-clock, 365 days of the year. In 2019 its team of registered nurses answered more than 117,000 calls for medical assessment and advice on everything from flu symptoms to feverish children to heart attacks – all without much in the way of public recognition or fanfare.
Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Links – Info Santé has been thrust into the spotlight, with call volumes increasing from an average of 350 a day to responding to more than 2,000 calls a day from Manitobans looking for credible information and advice.
"There's lots of anxiety, there's lots of fear, which is completely understandable," says Lindsay Marion, a registered nurse and one of Health Links – Info Santé's six Team Leaders. "We do our best to try to curb some of that anxiety by providing credible information and by assessing whether callers meet the criteria to be tested – and, if they don't, by telling callers what they need to be doing to protect themselves and others from COVID-19."
As it did in years past in response to public health emergencies such as floods, the West Nile virus, and 2009's H1N1 influenza outbreak, Health Links – Info Santé quickly ramped up its staffing and call capacity to deal with greatly increased demand. New COVID-19 screeners, including nursing students completing their practicums, were added with additional registered nurses working to handle all other health concerns. By adding staff, and with the addition of an online self-assessment tool, initially-high wait times were quickly reduced. Today, COVID-19-related calls are typically completed in less than five minutes with a minimal wait.
"It's certainly not business as usual, but we are adapting, which is what you have to do in all forms of nursing," Marion says. "We're doing our best and working together to get people through the system as efficiently as possible."
When asked how Health Links – Info Santé's staff is holding up under the increased demand for their services, Marion is quick to credit their efforts and dedication.
"In general, we're all doing quite well," she says. "We're here to do a job and to serve the public. Of course, we have our own fears and anxiety, and we're not immune to what's going on in the world. We have families to worry about, and we worry about each other. This is our second home and our second family, so we're trying our best to navigate and to serve the public in the best way we can."
Providing factual information is a key element in that effort.
"You can't weigh the importance of something like that," Marion says. "When misinformation is spread around and taken seriously, that can drastically skew the way that people are responding to a very serious situation. So facts are extremely important, to ensure that people can take the proper precautions and steps to protect themselves, their families, and everybody else around them.
"The anxiety and the fear takes over in many situations where [callers] hear of a positive case, or they were in a place where there was a positive case, and it's an automatic that they think they are going to test positive and get very sick," Marion says. "A lot of people feel they should be tested or everyone should be tested regardless of whether they have symptoms. But, as a health system, we have to stagger our approach to prioritize those at highest risk. We're following public health recommendations for who should and shouldn't be tested."
Marion says that, for the most part, callers have been respectful of, and thankful for, the information they receive from the Health Links - Info Santé team.
Health Links - Info Santé at a glance
- Health Links - Info Santé is a provincial service offering health information, symptom assessment, triage, care advice and education year-round 24 hours a day with service in more than 100 languages available through over-the-phone interpreters. Health Links - Info Santé nurses also provide general health information and help callers find health resources in local communities across Manitoba.
- Health Links – Info Santé also offers other public health services such as the Breastfeeding Hotline (204-788-8667), Dial-a-Dietitian and West Nile virus, rabies and influenza support.
- To contact Health Links – Info Santé, phone 204-788-8200 or toll-free at 1-888-315-9257.
- Wondering if you should be tested for COVID-19? Take the free Manitoba COVID-19 self-assessment at sharedhealthmb.ca/covid19/screening-tool/, or by phone at 1-877-308-9038.
Mike Daly is a Communications Specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.