Why PA Poison Center Digital Modernization Is Needed Now

At some point, you’ve probably seen the bright green sour face of Mr. Yuk®️ sticking his tongue out at you. He’s usually found on household products like bleach or detergent, which are poisonous and can be harmful if ingested.

But did you know that Mr. Yuk was the innovative creation of the Pittsburgh Poison Center in 1971?

This iconic green sticker has been raising awareness about poisonous and hazardous materials for more than 50 years. Mr. Yuk has become a recognizable symbol that poison control centers have used to help keep kids safe from toxic chemicals.

But beyond Mr. Yuk, poison centers play a critical role in poison prevention nationwide.

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Preventing Emergency Visits

Each year, U.S. poison centers field more than two million calls. The Pittsburgh Poison Center alone receives nearly 50,000 of those calls. With the help of on-call clinical toxicology nurse specialists, pharmacists, and physician toxicologists, the center prevents serious complications or unnecessary hospital visits in 93% of calls.

But the work of a poison control center is far more varied than just assisting in accidental poison exposure or consumption. For example, the Pittsburgh Poison Center has served the community by continuously combatting the opioid epidemic, offering assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and providing aid for the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023.

Saving Lives and More

Across the state, Pennsylvania’s two poison centers (one in Pittsburgh and one in Philadelphia) have touched thousands of lives and saved millions of dollars.

In 2022, Pennsylvania Poison Centers saved the state $62 million in avoidable health care costs by counseling people who called the hotline and were able to get questions answered, needs met, and stay at home instead of seeking care elsewhere.

The information and guidance provided by poison centers about toxic substances and intentional or unintentional overdoses is unrivaled and invaluable. However, they provide critical support for more than just incidents of children accidentally getting into bottles under the sink.

Over the last five years, children ages 6 to 19 have made more suspected suicide attempts than ever before. Attempts reported to Pennsylvania’s poison centers have increased by 35%, and many of them involved substances that were already in the home or easily accessible. Often substances used were learned about online.

The Pittsburgh Poison Center is always trying to stay on top of what’s happening regionally and nationally. Staff members monitor trends they hear about so that they can be better prepared, says Amanda Korenoski, PharmD, director, Pittsburgh Poison Center. Such trends include the misuse of medication or other substances that have gone viral on social media.

Korenoski cites a recent example as a drug often prescribed for nerve pain.

“Taken as prescribed, it’s not toxic or mood-altering,” she says. “But word spread on social media that taking large amounts of it could create a high, and kids began to try it.”

With more resources, the poison center could work closer with other agencies to study internet searches and other sources of real-time data. They could also help track more public health threats.

In the last two years alone, the Pittsburgh Poison Center identified several potential public health threats, including:

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning in ice arenas.
  • Counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl.
  • Growing numbers of toxic mushroom foraging exposures.
  • Increased pediatric ingestions of marijuana edibles.
  • Newly emerging psychoactive drugs.

Technological Limitations

While the Pennsylvania Poison Centers continue to be an efficient and effective resource, its technologies are no longer as innovative as they once were.

“The poison center toll-free phone number was established 21 years ago and is now considered outdated by today’s standards,” Korenoski says. “We haven’t modernized with the times. But in a world where many people are more comfortable searching their screens than making a phone call, we need to.”

Korenoski’s data shows a drop-off in calls from people between the ages of 20 and 40. Millennials and Gen Z often would rather communicate via chat.

“Today, people want text-to-chat capabilities and live website experiences, which we’re not yet able to offer,” Korenoski says.

Reaching younger audiences is important for the Pennsylvania Poison Centers because, according to Korenoski, “Younger people are the ones who have young children or will have them in the near future. They have to feel comfortable contacting the poison center when they’re in need, and they prefer to use text messaging rather than talk to someone on the phone. We need to meet them where they are in terms of technology.”

She cites the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline call, text, and chat feature as a successful example, which would serve as a model for the new service.

“The creation of an internet-based service would provide the community with useful information on a wide range of products containing hazardous materials and what to do in response to exposure,” Korenoski says. “Not only would that allow people the ability to research products they may or may not want to have in their homes, but it also would alleviate some of the calls that clinical toxicologist nurses have to respond to.”

By providing the community with better resources and encouraging them to be educated and aware, trained nurses would be free to focus on more serious, lifesaving issues and instances.

Need for Funding

The center works hard to stay on the leading edge of toxicology science and trends, but more can be done with additional funding.

The Pennsylvania Poison Centers would like to be at the forefront of building the infrastructure for a digital transformation. They envision a live website with text-to-chat capabilities that could encompass the entire Pennsylvania poison center system.

The new system could also be integrated with other agencies, including the Department of Health and Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, allowing the sharing of data and information about emerging trends in substance use and public health threats.

To move forward with this essential modernization, the Pennsylvania Poison Control Centers require a funding increase in the 2024-25 state budget. Several elected officials have signed a letter of support for the increase in funding, citing their belief that the increase will leave constituents “better served and supported.”

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