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Toronto doctor developing screening tool aimed at reducing gun violence

Last Updated Nov 13, 2020 at 6:53 pm EST

A doctor and Toronto native is developing a screening tool he believes will help reduce gun violence south of the border – and he says it is something that could be useful in Toronto as well.

Dr. Chethan Sathya is the director of the Northwell Health Centre for Gun Violence Protection in New York state. He recently received a U.S. federal grant to develop and implement a universal screening tool that would assess a patient’s risk of gun injury. The aim is to screen anyone who visits a hospital emergency department to provide protection.

“So when a patient comes into a hospital – either via tablet or a nurse asking – they’re going to be screened for firearm access and gun violence risk and depending on the score they get, they’ll get appropriate resources,” said Sathya.

The pediatric surgeon, like many health experts, sees gun violence playing out as a public health crisis.

“When I left Toronto, I initially trained in Chicago and I was pulling bullets out of babies all the time and it was just shocking. Over and over again we as physicians have had to tell parents that their children have died of a preventable disease.”

The screening tool will include questions such as: “Have you had a gun pulled on you in the last six months?” and “Have you recently heard gunshots in your neighbourhood?”

Patients can then be referred to counselling or community services based on the risk they face.

He says in the States – where gun ownership is more prevalent than in Canada – the tool will also assist in education about firearm safety.

In Toronto, the rate of gun violence has remained alarmingly high even amid a pandemic. The most recent stats from Toronto police show that there have been at least 425 shootings so far this year, on par with last year’s numbers. At least 37 people have died this year, one more than this time last year, and so far at least 164 people have been injured in shootings.

The neighbourhood hit hardest by rising gun violence rates is Jane and Finch.

Community advocate, Sam Tecle, says one of the biggest barriers to effectiveness for a tool like Dr. Sathya’s — is trust. To many, he says, a hospital is not a safe space. Those who are shot may not even go to ERs fearing reprisal, interrogation and police involvement. And, he says, there is a history of systemic racism.

“They’re not exactly the most comforting places for black and racialized folks, actually. There is actually racism in the hospitals that don’t make these places, places of care,” said Tecle.

He says community members lack the trust needed to share some of the types of information the doctors may ask for.

Dr. Sathya says he recognizes those barriers and says part of the research right now will be figuring out how to address them.

The screening tool is set to be rolled out early next year in 3 emergency departments in the state of New York.

Once data starts rolling in, they’ll be able to measure just how effective it is, and whether it can be replicated here.