Then & Now: Leading the way in sexual and reproductive health
Women's College Hospital's first STI clinic
This week marks the beginning of Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week and serves as an opportunity to reflect on Women’s College Hospital’s (WCH) ongoing legacy of providing important sexual and reproductive health care, particularly for underserved populations. Historically, WCH has always recognized the importance of sexual and reproductive health, pioneering one of the earliest free clinics for sexually transmitted infections, in Ontario in 1920. While WCH was primarily considered a women’s hospital at the time, it extended treatment to anyone seeking assistance, regardless of their gender.
Throughout the 20th century, STI's became a major public health concern in Canada, but it was only during the First World War that substantial public health measures were established. According to historian Jay Cassel, research coordinator at the Government of Ontario, “somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of the populace had syphilis.” In 1918, the provincial government took action and established the Venereal Diseases Prevention Act, and by 1919 plans for a nation-wide STI campaign were underway. One of the major acts of the federal and provincial governments was to sponsor free treatment centres throughout Canada. By 1920, there were nine clinics in Ontario, including one at WCH.
In 1921, WCH’s STI clinic, or “Special Clinic” as it was known, administered 393 treatments. By 1922, that number had risen to 2,245 treatments. Thousands of new patients were being diagnosed with an STI each year and WCH recognized the need to open its doors to the entire community. In 1922, WCH’s annual report confirmed, “The patients in attendance [at the Special Clinic] are from many walks of life, all nationalities, and all creeds.”
Today, WCH’s Special Treatment Clinic has expanded its services and continues to support all patients seeking sexual and reproductive health care. Housed at the Bay Centre, it prioritizes accessible care by providing same-day appointments and evening clinic hours for STI testing and treatment.
The Bay Centre’s team is proud to create a safe, welcoming and non-judgmental environment for a full spectrum of patients. Often, the clinic sees patients who don’t have health insurance, don’t have a family doctor or who have experienced sexual trauma and require extra care. A popular evening drop-in PAP program aims to serve populations that are typically under-screened and, as a result, experience higher rates of cervical cancer, such as low-income women and newcomers to Canada.
From the opening of the Special Clinic in 1920 to the work being done at the Bay Centre today, Women’s College Hospital remains committed to its legacy of providing equitable and compassionate reproductive and sexual health care to all members of the community.