Increasing transparency in complaints process

Medical errors and malpractice are hot topics, for obvious reasons. An even hotter a topic though is what happens to physicians who commit the kinds of errors that change, or ruin, lives.

Doctoring is a self-policing profession. The provincial colleges monitor and discipline their own, including adjudicating and meting out punishment over patient complaints. They have the power to suspend a physician's license or take it away all together, or even to impose conditions on how a doctor practices.

You'll hear more about this next Monday (September 1), in our first show of the new season, when we look at doctor-patient relationships that cross the line from professional to personal.

In the meantime, there's an interesting development coming out of Alberta. There, as in all the other provinces, the complaint and disciplinary process happens behind closed doors and the consequences are generally kept private. But that will be changing soon in Alberta. New rules dictate that charges against a physician will be public information, and disciplinary hearings will be open. This is a big change.

Under the current rules, the College of Physicians and Surgeons isn't even allowed to confirm a complaint against a specific doctor has been made, and the disciplinary hearing process is kept confidential. If a doctor is found guilty, the College can choose to publish the name, or not. Last year the College in Alberta received 571 complaints. 8 resulted in a guilty verdict, but only 5 of those guilty physicians were named publically.

Once the College comes under the Health Professions Act -- likely next spring-- charges against a physician will be published and hearings will be open to the public, except in special circumstances.

Critics welcome more accountability, but worry that making cases public before guilt or innocence is determined could harm a doctor's reputation. Advocates are hoping the new system will work to protect both doctors and patients. Either way, we'll be watching to see what consequence the increased scrutiny has on the College and the physicians it polices.

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