New rules introduced in the Alberta legislature could see doctors, along with thousands of other health-care providers, face automatic licence suspensions for sexually abusing patients.
“Women and all Albertans deserve to feel safe while accessing medical services,” Health Minister Sarah Hoffman told the house Tuesday before the legislature passed first reading of Bill 21, an Act to Protect Patients.
“Albertans place their trust and even their lives with their health-care providers. They must know that without a doubt they are in safe hands.”
Hoffman said the impetus for the bill came in the spring when she learned that a doctor convicted of sexual assault ultimately regained his licence to practise.
“I was frustrated to learn that the tools available to the regulatory colleges here in Alberta were inadequate to protect patients,” she said.
Bill 21, similar to legislation already passed in Ontario, sets out strict processes and punishments for health providers found to have abused patients.
There are two categories: sexual abuse and sexual misconduct.
Sexual abuse is defined as overt acts, including intercourse and sexual touching, and would result in mandatory licence suspension for at least five years.
Sexual misconduct is an array of lesser offences, such as voyeurism and sexually suggestive remarks or behaviour, and would lead to mandatory licence suspension of up to five years.
The new rules would take effect in April and cover 100,000 health professions, including family doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, surgeons, pharmacists, X-ray technologists, dentists, physiotherapists and chiropractors.
Karen Mazurek, deputy registrar with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, said this won’t drastically affect how doctors do their jobs.
“We have over 10,000 doctors in this province. What we’re talking about here is a very small number,” said Mazurek.
“The majority of our profession is going to be supportive of this. They care about their patients.”
Mazurek said she hopes that physicians, “in situations where they feel they may be vulnerable that they would have a chaperone present. And we encourage that now.”
If a complaint is lodged, the health provider and the complainant would go before a tribunal, and the threshold standard of proof will be on a balance of probabilities, less onerous than the criminal court’s standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Anyone found to have committed sexual abuse or misconduct would have their names and discipline history listed on public websites run by the health profession’s regulatory colleges.
Appeals from either side would be heard by Alberta’s Court of Appeal.
Health regulatory bodies would also be directed to fund treatment and counselling for abuse victims.
Alberta Health estimates that about two per cent of complaints about health providers involve allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct. The other 98 per cent range from complaints of misdiagnosis to rude behaviour or problems with a patient’s medical file.
Debra Tomlinson, head of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, said the changes will help victims, adding that the assault is made worse by the fact it could involve a person entrusted with their care.
“This exacerbates the sense of betrayal that the survivor experiences and in turn can make their trauma reaction more severe, and their healing and recovery process even more challenging.”