Former Alberta chief medical officer of health says job involves walking political tightrope

The former chief medical officer of health in Alberta says the job involves walking a political tight rope in order to ensure health advice benefits those who live in the province. 

Dr. Jim Talbot lists 3 options if you disagree with government: quit, be fired or work behind the scenes

Dr. Jim Talbot, former chief medical officer of health, says Dr. Deena Hinshaw provides advice to the government and it is up to the politicians to make the decisions.

The former chief medical officer of health in Alberta says the job involves walking a political tightrope in order to ensure health advice benefits those who live in the province. 

"As chief [medical officer of health], her responsibility is to provide recommendations to the minister and ultimately the government," said Dr. Jim Talbot, in reference to the current officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

"And it's the responsibility of the minister and the government to decide what to do with those recommendations."

Talbot, speaking on CBC Calgary News at 6, said Hinshaw is "one of the finest public health physicians" he's ever worked with. 

Some doctors have been calling for more stringent lockdown measures as COVID numbers surge across the province. 

And some Albertans have been openly musing that the cabinet and the premier are refusing to take Hinshaw's advice.

3 options for chief medical officer

Talbot said there are three options available to a chief medical officer of health if that were the case. 

"The first is that you can resign, and that would usually be reserved for things where you thought there was a big moral or ethical lapse," he said.

"The second is that you can differ publicly with the government, but I call that the bumblebee approach, because, as you know, bumblebees get to sting once and then that's the end of them. And if you disagree publicly with the government, the likelihood is that you're going to be fired. 

"The third is you can continue to work behind the scenes to get the best possible decisions that you can."

He said the options are more fraught in the midst of a pandemic, where leaving would deprive the province of needed expertise. 

Ultimately, said Talbot, it's the politicians who should be making the final decisions. 

"So in a democracy, there's always going to be a dimension in which the government has to weigh everything, you know, the effect on the economy, et cetera," he said.

"But the point that we're at now, is that if we don't get the virus under control, it's the virus that's going to destroy the economy."

ICUs could be 400% over capacity in December

Talbot said we're in a better place now in terms of understanding the virus than we were at the beginning of the pandemic, but that the virus is on track to overwhelm the health system.

He said ICUs are staring down the possibility of being 400 per cent over capacity by Dec. 24 unless things change. 

"I think recommendations are good as far as they go, but I think Albertans as individuals are going to need to step up to the plate," he said. 

"And I think governments are going to have to look very seriously at making things mandatory if we're going to keep the health-care system from collapse."


  • Dr. Jim Talbot refers to bumblebees getting to sting just once, but actually the only bee to die after stinging is the honeybee.
    Nov 13, 2020 4:24 PM MT

With files from CBC News at 6.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?