John Haggie not treating management problems at Central Health, say doctors

Doctors in Gander say their former colleague, Health Minister John Haggie, is pulling in his horns and not dealing with administrative problems at Central Health.
Gander radiologists Paula Kennedy, Michelle Ong and Jane Rendell are among a group of physicians who say a lack of leadership in Central Health compromises patient safety. (CBC)

Doctors in Gander say their former colleague, Health Minister John Haggie, is pulling in his horns and not dealing with administrative problems at Central Health.

"This is a human resources issue within Central Health and it is the responsibility of their senior administration to resolve such issues," wrote Haggie in an email to CBC Friday.

"Am I surprised? Very surprised that he's just been willing to sit down and do nothing about it when he knows they have really big problems," said Dr. Michelle Ong, a Gander radiologist.

Ong is among a group of physicians at the James Paton Memorial Hospital who asked for an external review of senior administration last July.

Dr. Ilse Kemp, president of medical staff at the Gander hospital, cited "ongoing concerns regarding poor leadership that is compromising patient safety."

John Haggie criticized hospital managers when he was a surgeon in Gander, but doctors say he is no longer going to bat for them in his role as health minister. (Julia Cooke/CBC)

In a subsequent letter in November, Kemp wrote about a lack of communication between the upper management team and staff.

"Most of them stay in their offices and don't come out to the units to make themselves seen," she wrote, adding the responsibility for another hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor often kept administrators on the road for two hours a day.

The letter outlines pages of concerns about orthopedics, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and radiology.

It also alleged family doctors have been pushed out of the Gander hospital and replaced by salaried doctors from other countries.

"There have been multiple concerns with continuing of care and the overall medical skill and knowledge of these individuals," Kemp wrote on behalf of the Gander doctors.

'Divide and conquer attitude'

Meanwhile, Ong has filed a human rights complaint accusing the health authority of bullying, sexism and harassment.

Ong, who said she was told during the late stages of her pregnancy that she no longer had a job at the Gander hospital, spoke out in December.

She and two other radiologists accused Central Health administrators of creating a toxic work environment.

Doctors at the James Paton Memorial Hospital say the facility is run by managers who don't communicate with them, or respect their opinion. (CBC)

Fellow doctor Robert Russell, an orthopedic surgeon, has come out in support of his three colleagues, and he wants the public to know the medical staff at James Paton Memorial Hospital also support them.

"It is a big deal. I think there has been a general divide and conquer attitude the administration has had with medical staff," said Russell in a Here & Now interview.

"It's been difficult to get medical staff unified on any single issue, but certainly the disconnect between administration and medical staff has brought us physicians together."

High hopes for Haggie

The doctors hoped Haggie would use his authority as health minister to intervene, since he was openly critical of Central Health managers while working as a surgeon in Gander.

In a strongly worded email in September, two months before his election to the House of Assembly, Haggie told Central Health chief of staff the health authority had an "ostrich style of management."

Dr. Robert Russell is an orthopedic surgeon who says medical staff support a group of radiologists who have spoken out. (CBC)

The email, which was copied to all staff, came after Central Health asked doctors to volunteer their time in response to a shortage of operating room assistants in Gander — a shortage that the chief said "poses significant patient safety risk when it comes to emergency C-sections."

Haggie wrote Central Health was using a "machiavellian way to resolve the issue" and had created a "poisoned well" for resident doctors considering a placement in Gander.

Haggie told CBC his critical email was written in his previous capacity as a clinical practitioner getting ready to leave practice, and was an opinion on the "complex" challenges of recruiting doctors.

"This is a completely distinct issue from the allegations of the three radiologists," he said.

Change in tone

According to the doctors, Haggie has not dealt with any of the issues that have been brought forward.

"When people get in politics they often change their whole, everything, which Dr. Haggie obviously has, I guess," said Dr. Jane Rendell.

In a letter to the radiologists' lawyer Jan.12, Haggie wrote that two external reports on the problems at Central Health "clearly stated that at no time has patient safety been compromised."

He said in the letter Central Health is working with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association on workshops to resolve conflict and human resource issues.

Radiologist Dr. Michelle Ong says doctors are not listened to when they suggest changes or express concerns. (CBC)

However, doctors maintain they are not being respected or listened to.

"A lot of things are going downhill. We have all been told we have no authority to be able to fix anything," said Ong.

"Go find a job somewhere else," is her advice to other doctors. "The problem is you may want to do the right thing that you're supposed to do, but you're not allowed to."

'Level of hypocrisy'

Former health minister Steve Kent, who intervened to get Ong her job back, said Haggie needs to step up to the plate.

"Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty, and you have to dig in, and you have to be hands on," said Kent.

He added that as recently as September, Haggie was "crying from the mountaintops" about the serious situation with Central Health management.

"Now he's putting his head in the sand and saying he won't deal with those very issues," said Kent.

"That level of hypocrisy is concerning when we're talking about matters that affect the quality of health care in our province."

With files from Carolyn Stokes


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