In Depth

N.W.T., Nunavut doctors' disciplinary pasts not online, unlike in provinces

In many provinces, you can go online and find out if and how a doctor has been disciplined. But in the N.W.T. and Nunavut, you'll have to contact the government with your request, a CBC investigation has learned.

People who want to look up doctors' pasts have to go through territorial governments

CBC News has identified 817 doctors across Canada who were disciplined for professional and ethical violations over the last 15 years. In the Northwest Territories, three disciplinary hearings took place, but the territorial government has released virtually no details about those decisions, citing legislative restrictions. (CBC )

CBC News has identified 817 doctors across Canada who were disciplined for professional and ethical violations over the last 15 years, and in the N.W.T., at least three disciplinary hearings and decisions took place during that period.

But unlike most other jurisdictions, the N.W.T. won't tell the public who those doctors are, what they did or even how they were disciplined. No doctors were disciplined in Nunavut between the years 2000 and 2015, the period studied by CBC.

The three N.W.T. doctors were the subject of disciplinary hearings between 2000 and 2010.

But the N.W.T.'s health department says legislation from that time prevents it from releasing information about those cases.

"We are unable to release any discipline-related information as it is not provided for in this legislation," said Damien Healy, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services.

This infographic breaks down the number of physicians (across Canada) by type of inappropriate behaviour. (CBC News Graphics)

New legislation allowing for public access to disciplinary decisions took effect in mid-2010. But no doctors have been disciplined since then.

That's not to say there haven't been any complaints: Between 2000 and 2015, N.W.T. patients complained 54 times about doctors. Patients had concerns about competency, behaviour, fitness to practice and sexual misconduct.

Nunavut received 11 complaints during that time, including two complaints about a physician's competence and one complaint about professionalism.

Though the doctors were investigated, the territory ultimately took no disciplinary action against them.

Requesting information

Patients who complain about a Nunavut doctor are informed about the outcome. 

According to a Government of Nunavut brochure, "Once your concern has been resolved and closed, you will be contacted with a response which could either be verbal or in writing, depending on complexity."

But other members of the public? "[They] can phone in to the office to request that information," said Irma Arkus, a spokesperson for Nunavut's Department of Health.

In the N.W.T., the territorial government says it will share information with the public — by request. 

Both territories' practices are a far cry from how accessible doctors' disciplinary histories are elsewhere in Canada.

This infographic breaks down the number of all disciplined physicians across Canada by type of offence. (CBC News Graphics)

In Ontario, people can go online to learn about a physician's disciplinary past going back to the 1980s. Manitoba lists cases going back to 2005. Alberta, too, has a searchable online database, though it only spans the last five years.

"I believe most provinces have some sort of system where you can search physicians," said Kelly Eby, the director of communications and government relations for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA), which handles complaints and manages the database for Alberta.

"The general concept about openness and transparency, sharing information about physicians, is an important part of why we exist."

How to file a complaint

Complaints about N.W.T. doctors are heard by a board of inquiry made up of at least three people appointed by the territory's health minister: one N.W.T. doctor, one doctor from a province and one member of the public who isn't a doctor.

Complainants receive a written copy of the decision.

Both the N.W.T. and Nunavut rely to different degrees on the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta to handle complaints, via contract. 

In Nunavut, the college investigates complaints and passes on its findings to the government, which then decides whether to hold a hearing and/or discipline a doctor. Patients are asked to send complaints via letter, in person or via email to the government's Iqaluit-based Patient Relations Office, which was set up in 2013.

In the N.W.T., the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta also handles the front-end complaints process. Patients are asked to contact an Alberta-based complaints officer (who works for the college) for information by phone. A complaint form is also available on the CPSA website.

Charles Dent, chair of the N.W.T. Human Rights Commission, says the nature of small-town life in the North may make Northerners less likely to file complaints. (N.W.T. Human Rights Commission)

In both territories, patients are encouraged to first take their concerns to the doctor who treated them.  

Charles Dent, the chair of the N.W.T. Human Rights Commission, says the nature of small-town life in the North could make a Northerner less likely to file a complaint.  

"You file a complaint against somebody that you have to live with in fairly close contact, that can make your life fairly uncomfortable," said Dent.  

"We don't have any data to prove that. It's something that you look at and say 'That's probably the case.'"

Some people may not even know where to turn, he added.

"And not everybody has easy access to the internet, particularly in smaller communities."

Nunavut's Patient Relations Office can be reached at 1-867-975-5703 and by email at Patients treated outside of Iqaluit, including all out-of-territory centres where Nunavut patients are sent, can contact Patient Relations toll-free at 1-855-438-3003

The complaints officer for the N.W.T., Dr. Michael Caffaro, can be reached at 1-780-969-4956