An innovative Winnipeg program designed to compensate patients who suffer harm in the health-care system has failed to compensate anyone in recent years.

When the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) initiated its early compensation process in 2006, it was described as unique in Canada.

It was designed to offer patients transparency, an apology, and financial compensation, as well as an alternative to filing a lawsuit.

Only a handful of patients had been compensated up until 2010.

A WRHA spokesperson told CBC News that since 2010, no one has qualified for early compensation.

The process was meant for patients who suffer a "critical incident," meaning those who suffer serious harm from health services, not resulting from the patient's underlying health condition or from a risk inherent in providing the health services.

Although hundreds of critical incidents are reported each year in Manitoba, only those meeting three criteria would qualify for the WRHA's early compensation process:

  • It must be clear the hospital and its staff are legally liable for the harm.
  • None of the parties, such as surgeons, are covered through independent insurance.
  • The amount the patient or family is entitled to receiving must be easily assessed.

The WRHA says it recognizes the program has been difficult to implement. The spokesperson said it makes more sense to deal with cases through the authority's insurance.

Heather Chapman, a patient advocate in Saskatchewan, suffered a critical incident herself and operates a website called thepatientfactor.com.

"It's nice to have a compensation program in name. But if patients aren't able to access that program, I'm not sure what it's accomplishing," Chapman told CBC News in an interview.

Can be difficult to reach agreement

"In fairness, we have to recognize it took a lot of courage for WRHA to put this on the table," said Dr. Rob Robson, the former WRHA patient safety officer who initially proposed the early compensation program.

Robson, who has since left Manitoba, told CBC News he is not surprised that very few patients have benefitted from the program.

He said that's because doctors and hospitals have different insurance companies, which makes it difficult to reach an agreement on compensation.

But Robson said the program is worthwhile and he still believes officials should find a way to make it work.

"If you've hurt someone, you should apologize and make amends," he said.

Winnipeg lawyer Robert Tapper, a noted authority on medical lawsuits, said in the few times the early compensation program did provide payments, it offered only "peanuts" to patients who had been harmed.

"In my view … it's a diversion program," Tapper said.

"It identifies someone who might sue them and tries to pacify them and say, 'We're nice people, don't sue us.'"