Better co-ordination with police needed to address impaired driving, physicians say

Physicians say there needs to be better co-ordination between police and health-care workers to ensure that intoxicated drivers face legal repercussions.

Privacy laws prevent sharing of blood alcohol results

The results of medical blood alcohol tests can't be shared with police, who must request their own test in cases of suspected impaired driving. (David Horemans/CBC)

A Halifax ER physician says there needs to be better co-ordination between doctors and law enforcement to identify when alcohol is a factor in motor vehicle collisions.

Robert Green is a physician at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax and the provincial medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia. He told CBC's Information Morning that he and his colleagues have noticed a steady increase in the number of patients coming in with major trauma — meaning significant injuries to the head, chest, abdomen or pelvis — adding up to a 15 to 20 per cent increase over the past five or six years. 

Halifax-based Dr. Robert Green said he treats an increasing number of people who have sustained major trauma, often as a result of motor vehicle collisions involving impaired driving. (CBC)

When these injuries are a result of motor vehicle collisions, patients are tested for blood alcohol levels. But because of privacy laws, the results of those tests can't be disclosed to police.

"Unless a police officer asks us for a legal blood alcohol, which is a whole different procedure ... then it really doesn't go anywhere."

No mandatory reporting

Green said of the roughly 275 drivers a year who sustain trauma from motor vehicle collisions, a third are shown to have alcohol in their system. 

"When we look ... at who's actually being charged, it's very few. The best information in Nova Scotia, it's maybe one in five."

Green said, unlike gunshot wounds, for which there's mandatory reporting, the results of blood alcohol tests are not shared with the police. 

But rather than changing privacy laws, Green said there's an easier way for physicians and police to co-ordinate the testing of blood alcohol levels.

This involves police accompanying the patient to the ER and asking the health-care team to do a legal blood alcohol-level test, using a special kit that is either on site (in the case of the QEII) or that the police bring with them.

"Essentially it is a chain of custody: the police have to witness the blood being drawn from the patient [and] take those samples to their lab, so it's external to the QEII. And then it's processed separately from the medical blood alcohol level."

Confusion around procedure

Green said there's confusion both for physicians and police in terms of how to go about obtaining the legal blood alcohol level. 

"We do find that the police would probably benefit from more education of how they actually ask for this procedure to happen."

In an emailed statement, the Halifax Regional Police said that HRP members follow a specific test when dealing with a suspected impaired driver who needs immediate medical attention, including accompanying the suspect to the hospital, requesting a blood test, taking that sample to the HRP storage facility and requesting testing.

The spokesperson said that the HRP encourages dialogue with stakeholders, and seeks to work closely with them in relation to any concerns they have regarding police procedure.

With files from CBC's Information Morning