An Edmonton doctor has stepped forward to publicly complain about a "climate of intimidation" which he says nearly cost him privileges to practise medicine after he was secretly accused of mental instability.
"It was a threat to my privileges, a threat to my livelihood, and it took a form of mobbing in the workplace," Dr. Abilio Nunes told CBC Wednesday.
Alberta Health Services only backed down in 2009 after a Court of Queen's Bench judge ordered Caritas Health Group to release the secret email to Nunes that contained what the court confirmed were unsupported allegations of mental instability.
Nunes, an anesthesiologist at Grey Nuns Hospital in Mill Woods, says his problems began after he complained to a surgeon about not being given sufficient information for surgery on an emergency patient. The surgeon, in turn, complained to the head of surgery, who took the issue up the management ladder.
"I remain gravely concerned about Dr. Nunes," states the email written by the former head of surgery to the hospital's chief of staff.
"While admittedly I am not a psychiatrist, he does seem very close to decompensating. I truly believe he needs help and am worried about the implications of his behaviour, not only for the Grey Nuns Hospital and its patients, but also for Dr. Nunes and his family."
While the head surgeon was prepared to make the potentially career-ending allegation, he preferred to do it secretly.
"As I neither wish to be confronted by Dr. Nunes, nor do I wish to have a complaint against me to the college, I would appreciate it if you would keep this letter in the STRICTEST of confidence."
According to court documents, Caritas did just that. Other staff also filed complaints against Nunes and Capital Health responded by setting up an investigating committee. It eventually found Nunes was disruptive and needed treatment for his behaviour.
He was threatened with limited hospital privileges. But Nunes refused to accept the finding, and fought back.
Nunes had heard about the secret email and filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain it. Caritas refused to process his request.
The doctor appealed and the matter went to an FOI hearing in which Caritas claimed they couldn't disclose the email because they feared potential "mental or physical harm."
The adjudicator however, found the fear was conjecture, without any supporting evidence. She said Nunes should have the email so he could defend himself, and ordered it released.
Caritas appealed the adjudicator's 2008 ruling to the Court of Queen's Bench but a judge upheld it. Nunes said once Caritas lost in court, the matter was eventually dropped.
"In the end they finally gave me a letter that stated there had been no wrongdoing on my part and that was it," he said. "There was no apology, there was no closure. And my privileges were reinstated in full all the way to 2013."
The Nunes rulings from the FOI commissioner and the Court of Queen's Bench were tabled in the Alberta legislature Wednesday by Independent MLA Raj Sherman, in support of his allegations that doctors who complain about patient care have forced out and legally barred from publicly criticizing the government.
Nunes said he had heard about the case of Dr. Ciaran McNamee, first reported on CBC last week. McNamee, Capital Health's former head of thoracic surgery, filed a lawsuit in which he alleged he had been forced out of the job and accused of incompetence and mental instability after he complained about lung-surgery waiting lists.
The lawsuit was settled out of court and the allegations were never proven. McNamee now teaches at Harvard and is a surgeon at one of Boston's top hospitals.
Another doctor told CBC this week that, like McNamee, she also had been demoted, fired and was the subject of a whisper campaign that questioned her sanity after she complained about health-care cuts putting patient safety at risk. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she is still bound by a non-disclosure agreement.
Nunes said he decided to go public after seeing the McNamee story and hearing Sherman's allegations.
"The reason I am speaking is out because I don't have a gag order, and secondly, I knew from the beginning what Dr. Raj Sherman was getting at because it happened to me as well and I know of other colleagues that this sort of intimidation has happened to as well. So I thought if I don't speak out, if I don't say something, then I am part of the problem."
Nunes, a physician for 31 years, said he has worked in South Africa, Britain and in several cities across Canada.
"I have never felt the sense of intimidation that I felt here," he said.
" What Dr. Raj Sherman and the opposition are pushing for in terms of having a public inquiry, I think that's the right thing. I think it's the only way of getting to the bottom of whether the government had a hand in this or if it was just poor administration."
On Wednesday, Premier Ed Stelmach again rejected calls for a public inquiry, saying he has seen no evidence to support Sherman's allegations.