Doctors and other healthcare professionals found guilty of sexually abusing patients will be forced to turn in their licences for a minimum of five years under new legislation that overhauls disciplinary rules.
The NDP bill, dubbed An Act to Protect Patients, outlines a range of actions that would lead to a licence being revoked, including intercourse, sexual touching and masturbating in front of a patient.
Offences under the umbrella of sexual abuse carry the heaviest penalties, but new rules also apply to professionals guilty of sexual misconduct, which could include sexual remarks or voyeurism. Professionals who commit sexual misconduct also have to give up their licences, though regulatory colleges have the discretion to determine shorter suspensions up to five years.
On Tuesday, Alberta became the second province to introduce legislation after Ontario.
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said the rules aim to make patients feel safe and improve transparency in the health-care sector.
“The age of impunity is over,” she said at a news conference after tabling the bill. “These crimes have been confined to the shadows for far too long and it’s time that they are brought into the light.”
Under the new rules, colleges will have to post information on a professional’s disciplinary history online for an indefinite period of time. They will also have to provide victims with access to counselling and establish patient-relations programs.
The legislation applies to 29 regulatory bodies, ranging from physicians to dental hygienists to x-ray technologists, to cover a total of about 100,000 professionals.
About two per cent of all complaints levied against health professionals in Alberta in 2015-17 related to sexual abuse or sexual misconduct, said the province. There were more than 100 complaints during that time. Other more common complaints ranged from misdiagnoses to bedside manner or problems with patient records.
In May, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, which receives the most complaints in the province because of its size and scope, adopted a new mandate to seek “stricter sanctions.” The policy change was partly spurred by controversy surrounding Edmonton family physician Dr. Ismail Taher. His licence was restored despite two sexual assault convictions for inappropriately touching a patient and a nurse.
His reinstatement came with conditions — including that he use a chaperone when seeing female patients — but the college said its scope of discipline was constrained by case law.
Under the current system, colleges are responsible for the disciplinary process and standards vary.
College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta deputy registrar Karen Mazurek lauded the mandatory supports for patients outlined in the legislation.
“It is such an uneven playing field,” she said.
While an investigation is underway, the college can take interim actions, including licence suspensions or putting conditions on a doctor’s practice, she said.
“You owe a duty of fairness to the physicians as well, so you have to take the time to do a proper investigation,” she said, adding it can take months. “At the same time, we need to be able to protect patients.”
Professionals who lose their licences during an investigation won’t be credited for that time if they face penalties.
Hoffman said some of the colleges and associations are nervous about creating an adequate fund to support patients after sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.
“Some of the smaller colleges have expressed that they might choose to pool their resources and work collaboratively in setting up that fund,” she said.
The amendments to the Health Professions Act don’t include deadlines for how long colleges have to launch an investigation after a complaint is filed, nor do the rules require a resolution within a certain time frame.
Patient complaints will go to a college or through an Alberta health advocate, at which point a complaints director would decide whether to launch an investigation. That can then lead to a tribunal hearing.
Other changes include that every hearing tribunal must include at least one public member with the same gender identity of the patient.
Appeals go through the Alberta Court of Appeal.
Health professionals will be able to reapply for their licences after the end of a licence ban or suspension.
If passed, the bill will take effect April 1.