New N.W.T. health care legislation raises privacy concerns

The N.W.T.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner says legislation designed to regulate health care professionals could allow investigators access to confidential health records.

Privacy Commissioner says Bill 36 could allow access to confidential health records

Northwest Territories MLAs are reviewing legislation that would allow the territory to start regulating health professions such as naturopaths and psychologists, but the Information and Privacy Commissioner says the proposed bill could violate people's privacy.

Bill 36, which also applies to licensed nurse practitioners and emergency medical service providers, spells out how complaints against practitioners will be investigated. But in the process, says Elaine Keenan Bengts, it gives people investigating those complaints access to any information they need, including confidential health records.

N.W.T. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts says Bill 36 is a good idea, but that it raises serious privacy concerns.

"This Act, this bill, says an investigator may demand any information from any person and it goes on to say you can't refuse to provide that information," says Keenan Bengts, Information and Privacy Commissioner for the N.W.T. 

That, she says, could put people in a position where they have to decide whether to comply with Access to Information laws or face up to $5,000 in fines. 

Thomas Druyan, counsel with the Department of Justice, says there are provisions in place to ensure people's privacy under the new bill — and that most complainants wouldn't have an issue, anyway.

"If they were uncomfortable, or not satisfied with the service, it's hard to understand why they would not want to come forward," he said.

"But if they do come forward, there are provisions to have the hearing held in camera."

But Keenan Bengts says there are lots of examples of situations where non-complainants may have their records accessed, such as looking at how other patients were treated when examining a specific complaint against one provider. She says those people might not even know their records were being examined by multiple people.

She says the decision from a disciplinary body should become public, but that information should protect the identity of the complainant. 

"If someone isn't willing to file the complaint because their information is going to become public, it's self-defeating," she says.

Keenan Bengts says the government didn't consult her when it was drafting the legislation, but that she does believe Bill 36 is a good idea. She hopes to work with territorial MLAs as they continue reviewing the proposed law.

More than a dozen health professionals attended the meeting at the legislative assembly. 

Professionals want input into regulation

Dr. Nicole Redvers says regulation will allow naturopathic doctors to practice using all the skills they've been trained to use and prevent people who are not authorized to practice from working here.

Dr. Nicole Redvers is a naturopath from the N.W.T. She's been pushing for regulation since she was reprimanded by the health department for using the title doctor when she moved back to the territory to work.

"I received a letter from the current registrar threatening jail time and monetary fine for calling myself a naturopathic doctor after 10 years education," she told the committee. 

She says regulation will allow naturopathic doctors to practise all the skills they've been trained to do, and it will prevent people who aren't authorized to work here from practising in the territory. 

Redvers also hopes the health professions affected by the bill can weigh in on the regulations that will govern them.

"All of the other self-governing bodies, they're doing everything themselves in the south. So you want to have that control but at the same time, how do you investigate your friend? So it's going to be a delicate fine line," she told the committee.

Members of the territory's Association of Psychologists agreed. 

"If they don't have any opportunity to participate fully in the governance of the profession, it's unlikely we're going to get the buy-in from Northerners," said Bruce Smith, one of the 15 psychologists who lives and works in the territory.

"We have unique problems based on the historical and cultural differences, and from the practice of our health profession it's really important we start recruiting Northerners into that process."

But Arlene Hache, a community advocate, says professions shouldn't govern themselves. She says there's a long history of health professionals overlooking cultural values. 

"I'm concerned about the notion that professionals are the protectors of the public," she said.

"I bet if you did a survey in the Northwest Territories, that's not how the public feels and that's not how community people feel."

Hache asked for the community to have a say in who is qualified to practice and the complaints process. She also asked that the period of time people can lodge a complaint be extended to five years from two. 

MLAs are continuing to review the legislation. 


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