CALGARY—Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman introduced a bill Tuesday that would make more of health professionals’ disciplinary histories public and heighten protections for patients.
The proposed legislation follows a Star investigation that found that doctors who misbehave can get a fresh start in Alberta. However, the bill covers only sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, failing to address other types of medical misconduct, said patient advocate Rick Lundy.
“They need to go one step further,” said Lundy, co-founder of Open Arms. “This is an absolute great first step. Let’s make sure it’s carried all the way through.”
The Star’s 18-month investigation, published in May, highlighted gaps in a broken system that keeps doctors’ histories secret from patients. In Alberta, criminal convictions and records of misconduct from outside the province aren’t posted publicly on doctors’ licences, while misconduct within the province is posted for 10 years.
If passed, Alberta would be the second province to have such legislation. Hoffman said Tuesday that Alberta’s version would be stricter, with harsher penalties and legal definitions of both sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. In Ontario, only sexual abuse is defined.
However, Ontario’s laws are far more expansive when it comes to physician records. There, doctors’ entire disciplinary histories, no matter the type of offence, are posted to their practice permit. The public record also includes criminal convictions.
Even then, the standard falls far short of transparency laws in the United States, the investigation found. Unlike in the U.S., where consumer legislation governs many medical boards and mandates openness, Canada’s doctors oversee themselves. One consequence of self-regulation, the investigation found, is endemic secrecy.
“The age of impunity is over,” Hoffman said Tuesday. “These crimes have been confined to the shadows for too long.”
However, the changes might not have done anything in some cases highlighted by the investigation, like that of Dr. Richard Cunningham, a Fort Macleod family physician. Cunningham’s history of threats of violence and alcohol offences don’t appear on his public profile in Alberta because they occurred outside the province.
In May, Hoffman pledged to look into making more of doctors’ disciplinary histories public in Alberta. The same month, in response to the investigation, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta began posting doctors’ histories for 10 years instead of five.
“For too long Albertans were left in the dark about disciplinary histories, as we continued to hear disturbing stories of offending professionals being allowed to practice again,” she said.
“I’m proud our government is taking action to increase transparency, support survivors and strengthen protections for patients in Alberta.”
Bill 21, or “An Act to Protect Patients,” is an amendment to the province’s Health Professions Act. It would cover all 27 regulated health professions in Alberta, including doctors, nurses, dentists, paramedics, social workers, psychologists and pharmacists, all of which are governed by self-regulating colleges that have varying standards.
If passed, the law would create mandatory penalties for health-care professionals who have committed sexual abuse or sexual misconduct. College members who commit sexual abuse would have their practice permits cancelled, while sexual misconduct would result in a suspension.
The act includes fines for health-care employers who don’t report sexual abuse or misconduct to the colleges. The colleges would have the power to suspend or place conditions on practice permits while they investigate such allegations, the province said.
The bill also requires that colleges list members’ disciplinary histories for sexual abuse and sexual misconduct online, including records from other provinces and the United States. That history would have to remain up indefinitely.
However, the disciplinary history rules would only apply to sexual abuse and misconduct. Other disciplinary records will still be scrubbed after 10 years, and other types of discipline from outside the province still won’t be posted on their Alberta practice permits.
“It goes back to the patient being able to make informed decisions,” said Lundy.
About two per cent of complaints against medical professionals in Alberta between 2015 and 2016 were related to sexual abuse or sexual misconduct, the province said. Other complaints often relate to misdiagnoses or issues with patient records.
Under the new rules, medical professionals found to have committed sexual abuse or misconduct also wouldn’t be allowed to reapply for a practice permit in Alberta for five years. The penalties are the same whether the offence was committed in Alberta or in another jurisdiction.
The proposed legislation would also provide more help for patients who allege they’ve been sexually assaulted by a health professional.
Colleges would be required to give treatment and counselling to such patients. They’d also have to establish patient relations programs that would help patients navigate the complaints system, among other things.
The proposed legislation would allow colleges and health professions to appeal disciplinary tribunals’ decisions through the provincial court system.
Midwives and acupuncturists aren’t currently regulated health professions, but work is underway to change that. Once that’s done, they would also be covered by Bill 21.
The legislation isn’t retroactive, meaning it would apply only to new disciplinary issues. If passed, it would come into effect on April 1, 2019.
Emma McIntosh is an environment, justice and investigative reporter with StarMetro Calgary. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaMci