New Brunswick

Vitalité accused of silencing doctors, controlling public message amid COVID-19

The Vitalité Health Network is being accused of silencing doctors and controlling the public message under the reign of outgoing president and CEO Gilles Lanteigne.

Outgoing president and CEO Gilles Lanteigne denies muzzling

Gilles Lanteigne will retire as president and CEO of Vitalité Health Network at the end of October. (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

The Vitalité Health Network is being accused of silencing doctors and controlling the public message under the reign of outgoing president and CEO Gilles Lanteigne.

The criticisms by a former health manager and former board member come after the regional health authority issued a retraction statement last week on behalf of a doctor who had voiced concerns about the prevention and control protocols on the COVID-19 unit at the Campbellton Regional Hospital.

"We must admit that for appearances, it is as if we had forced her to retract," said retired Dr. Louis-Marie Simard, the former president and chief executive officer of the former Beauséjour Health Authority, which pre-dated Vitalité.

"If that's what has been done, twisting your arm is certainly not a good management practice," he said.

"As far as I can remember, what I preach is what I did ... I don't think anyone in the organization had fears that the administration was going to slap them on the wrist if he spoke."

Last Thursday, Dr. Vona MacMillan, a family physician based in Charlo, 30 kilometres east of Campbellton, told Radio-Canada she was a "little nervous" starting on the COVID-19 unit at the Campbellton hospital after 10 staff had tested positive for the respiratory disease.

She had called on Vitalité to allow staff to wear N95 masks while treating COVID-positive patients, regardless of the procedure being performed. 

By 4:20 p.m. on Friday, Vitalité released a statement saying MacMillan "wishes" to retract her comments and apologize.

Dr. Vona MacMillan called for the wider use of N95 masks for Campbellton hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients. (Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

In Simard's view, such control of the public message is dangerous for democracy and for patient confidence in the health-care system.

"Suppose people know that a doctor can be threatened and [forced] to retract. When I go to the doctor in his office, I have a condition that could have a public impact, and I see that my doctor is telling me a story and does not seem comfortable, can I trust him?" he said.

"Health is a personal system. When I speak to a health-care professional, I have to feel 100 per cent confident that he is trying to do the best he can for my case."

Public health must be transparent

Simard acknowledges certain laws must frame the right to speak. "I have the right to speak, but I don't have the right to lie and I don't have the right to reveal intimate or private information, there is a framework."

But he also noted Vitalité is dependent on the Department of Health, financed with public funds.

"When we talk about a health service, it is a public service, paid for by the public and managed by the public, so it must be transparent."

Lanteigne defended himself, saying there was no muzzling in MacMillan's case. She is the one who decided to retract her statement, he said.

Can anybody speak to the media? Of course they can speak.- Gilles Lanteigne, Vitalité president and CEO

"She decided that after consideration to recognize that the standards and the procedures as established by Canadian Public Health and the New Brunswick Public Health are appropriate, that the patients are secure and that there is enough equipment in the Restigouche, and that she would follow the guidelines and the policies and procedures of Vitalité Health Network," he told reporters during the question period of Vitalité's annual general meeting Tuesday afternoon.

MacMillan "has decided to do that on her own. She's an adult. She had decided to speak."

Lanteigne said Vitalité — like most organizations — does have a policy on who can speak on behalf of the organization.

But it considers its roughly 7,400 physicians and medical staff as "ambassadors."

"Can anybody speak to the media? Of course they can speak. They're doing it … as [a] private citizen," he said.

"When we have someone who works for us, there is an obligation on both sides … that we respect and that we expect everybody to conform to their code of policy and their ethical framework that guides their professions," he added.

'We weren't allowed to speak to the media'

Norma McGraw, who resigned in February as vice-chair of the Vitalité Health Network's board of directors in protest over health reform plans, said she's not surprised to hear about MacMillan's case.

"We weren't allowed to speak to the media, that's for sure ... We weren't allowed to go and ask employees questions to find out how they were, how the services were. These are things we were not supposed to do," she said, adding she believes information control was exercised within senior management to ensure the delivery of a consistent message.

Norma McGraw resigned as vice-chair of the board last February, publicly denying Vitalité's assertion that a vote had been held behind closed doors on the planned overnight closure of the emergency rooms of six small hospitals. (Radio-Canada)

McGraw said she regrets, however, that a doctor who expressed legitimate fears appears to have been silenced.

"This doctor, if she transgressed the communication channels, it is because she felt preoccupied ... It is a cry of alarm. Has it been listened to? I imagine not, otherwise there would not have been the" retraction."

Three front-line care-givers who have worked on the COVID-19 unit told CBC News last week that they didn't feel safe under current personal protective equipment protocols, especially one that allows the use of N95 masks only for procedures that produce airborne droplets.

Masks, but not N95 masks, are to be worn at all times at the hospital.

The employees said staff have been refused extra protection when treating COVID-19 patients, and lax protocols create a risk of spread throughout the hospital.

The employees said they're fearful of bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members and called on Vitalité for change.

As of last Wednesday, 10 employees of the Campbellton Regional Hospital had tested positive for COVID-19 and 31 others were self-isolating.

One of the positive cases was determined to be a false positive over the weekend, Lanteigne said.

About half of the 40 affected employees are expected to return to work by Friday, he said.

With files from Radio-Canada

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