Quebec doctors warn language Bill 96 could hurt patient care

A junior doctor holds his stethoscope during a patient visit at the Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital, in Blackburn, England, Thursday, May 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah McKay/Pool Photo via AP

A coalition of doctors and health-care professionals in Quebec is asking that the health and social services network be excluded from the provincial government’s language-reform legislation known as Bill 96.

La Coalition pour des services sociaux et de santé de qualité (CSSSQ) — made up of some 500 physicians and health professionals as well as 30 organizations — worries about the impact of the bill on newcomers to the province with little to no knowledge of French. If adopted, doctors would be required to address newcomers in French.

In an open letter published Wednesday, the CSSSQ said it believes the proposed law, in its current form, “could endanger people’s lives or have negative impacts on mental health if applied.”

“It’s already difficult enough to understand information under stressful circumstances, adding unnecessary barriers will only increase this risk and undermine providers’ ability to deliver optimal care,” the letter reads in French.

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Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is also the minister responsible for the French language, tabled Bill 96 to overhaul the province’s landmark Charter of the French language known as Bill 101.

Bill 96 would require public service providers to communicate exclusively in French with new immigrants beginning six months after their arrival.

While there is a provision for exemptions when “health, public security or issues of natural justice require it,” the coalition said it feels it lacks clarity and is imprecise.

Dr. Suzanne Gagnon, who works with refugees in the Quebec City area, says asking health professionals to communicate in French with immigrants after six months is “completely unrealistic.”

“It’s a vulnerable clientele; 80 per cent of them don’t speak French or English upon arrival,” she said. “Some have been in refugee camps for 20 years, (some) have different alphabets from ours. Some have very little formal education and are older.”

‘Every word is important’

Gagnon is also the co-founder of a refugee health clinic that operates under the authority of the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale, the regional health board.

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For her, communication is a crucial component when it comes to treating patients. Gagnon said she often has to use interpreters during appointments.

“If a person has a splinter in their finger, we can figure it out,” she said, but more complex cases require nuance and subtlety.

“If we’re talking about sensitive topics like mental health, children with behavioural problems that require the intervention of youth services, depression, end of (medical) care, then every word is important.

“Even if we use simplified language as much as possible, if the person only understands half of what we’re saying, it can all go very wrong and lead to medical errors and even death,” Gagnon said, specifying that the right to free and informed consent when deciding to receive or refuse care is regulated in the province.

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While Gagnon believes in the importance of francizing immigrants, she said it’s not a task that should fall on the health system.

Gagnon also worries that the obligation to communicate in French could lead to some health professionals speaking out against colleagues who choose to continue using interpreters or communicate in another language.

The coalition lamented that its efforts to have the bill amended “were not conclusive.”

In an email to The Canadian Press, a spokesperson for Jolin-Barrette said the law on health and services remains intact.

“It was even written in black and white in Bill 96. Citizens will continue to have access to health care. There is nothing in the proposed legislation that will prevent Quebecers from getting treatment,” the statement reads.

— with files from Global News’ Annabelle Olivier

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