Training needed for sickle cell diagnosis and treatment

Hospitals are having trouble distinguishing anemia from drug addiction, causing longer wait times

Hospital emergency staff need more training in sickle cell crisis screening, say medical professionals.

Physicians at The Scarborough Hospital acknowledged that this process is currently flawed, which is detrimental for sufferers.

The Scarborough Hospital implemented a new sickle cell crisis protocol in its emergency department last month in what physicians are calling a move to “serve a diverse population.”

According to Doreen Alexander, president of the Sickle Cell Awareness Group of Ontario, this effort does not resolve the fundamental lack of understanding going into sickle cell care.

Sickle cell disease is a blood disorder which causes abnormally shaped red blood cells. This condition often causes extreme bouts of pain referred to as “crisis.”

Alexander said a major concern for sickle cell patients is not being able to receive the large amount of medication required to deal with pain during crisis.

She said physicians sometimes misunderstand a sufferer’s need for the copious amount of narcotics to be similar to the wants of those suffering from drug addiction.

“[Patients with sickle cell] do suffer a lot, because one of the things they encounter in the emergency department is being told that they’re drug addicts looking for a fix instead of being looked at as an individual who really needs to be treated,” Alexander said.

“There is this disconnect,” Scarborough physician Dr. Eric Hurowitz said. “These individuals are in pain and require an industrial amount of narcotics that physicians and nurses were really uncomfortable with. Unfortunately, there is a really distinct group of people who require this care.”

This is a major point of contention for suffers and their families as, Alexander has found, those in crisis who seek emergency attention may be deemed less of a priority and subject to longer wait times or turned away altogether.

Dr. Peter Azzopardi says that the belief that all sickle cell sufferers belong to a distinct group no longer holds true today.

In his experiences with the disease, he has found that sickle cell is not just a concern for groups of African or Mediterranean ancestry.

“As our cultures become more diverse, this isn’t just a problem that you only see in the black population anymore. We’re also seeing children of basically any background showing up with cases of the sickle cell disease that we wouldn’t normally look for,” Azzopardi said.