Health minister urged to tell colleges to publicize cautions

Health Minister Deb Matthews must take “immediate” action to ensure that Ontario’s health regulatory colleges publish cautions issued to doctors, dentists and others for mistakes or improper behaviour, say opposition parties.

A recent Star investigation revealed that more than 2,200 secret cautions were issued to Ontario health-care professionals between 2007 and 2011 by the colleges that regulate them.

Matthews’ ministry recently gave the green light to colleges to publicize cautions, but stopped short of telling them they should do so.

As a result, patients still have no way of learning from the colleges which practitioners have faced cautions. Colleges argue a provincial law does not allow them to publish details of these warnings.

The Star found cautions, which are different from public disciplinary actions, often dealt with serious issues, such as improper communication with patients, a lack of timely referrals and errors in prescribing medication.

After the Star raised questions with the province about the lack of transparency surrounding cautions, a top health official met with the Federation of Health Regulatory Colleges of Ontario to stress that colleges can publish details of cautions without a change to the Regulated Health Professions Act.

Progressive Conservative health critic Christine Elliott said Matthews must provide the leadership necessary to make sure the public is protected.

“These colleges exist to protect the public and if they’re not making this information available to the public, then the minister can’t hide behind their so-called independence,” she said. “(Matthews) is ultimately responsible … and needs to work with the colleges to make sure the public gets the information they need.”

NDP health critic France Gélinas echoed those concerns, and added the current “back-and-forth” between the ministry and the colleges over who has jurisdiction to make caution details public “is not helpful.”

“If there is a discrepancy, it is up to (Matthews’) ministry to sit down and engage in a dialogue with the colleges to straighten things out,” Gélinas said. “There is a strong reluctance within the health-care system to be transparent, but whenever they are, it makes things better. . . . Let’s move on with this. Let’s be accountable.”

Matthews told the Star in a statement Tuesday she has “no plans to require” colleges to make the cautions public. She said the government “will always do what’s best for patients” and said patients should report any concerns they have to the appropriate college.

“Colleges have the authority to publicly report cautions,” she said. “I urge them to continue to review their policies to support our shared goals of transparency and responsibility to the public.”

The health college federation says it needs a legal opinion and time to consider whether cautions can be made public through internal bylaws.

Such a change would require “a careful, considered analysis of the Regulated Health Professions Act and of the implications of any proposed changes through mechanisms provided by the legislation,” said federation president Linda Gough.

“This is a complex issue and the answer is not clear,” she said.

Lori DeCou, a spokesperson for the Ontario College of Pharmacists, said her college was “committed to considering the publication of cautions” and that the issue would be discussed at an upcoming executive committee meeting.

“Any subsequent review of this would consider the means by which this could be achieved, such as change to existing bylaws or other,” she said.

College of Physicians and Surgeons spokesperson Kathryn Clarke reiterated Tuesday her college’s “willingness to discuss with the ministry whether more information about registrants should be made public and, if so, how to best achieve any desired change.

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