Gander radiologist says bullying, intimidation forced her out of hospital
Central Health cites 'disrespect' by doctor toward administration
A specialist at Gander's James Paton Memorial Hospital says a campaign of workplace bullying and intimidation has forced her from her job, hurt her reputation, and is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Paula Kennedy, who is trained in nuclear medicine and interventional radiology, said her hospital privileges were stripped in 2017 and, despite a successful appeal, she's been unable to return to work.
You don't go to medical school so you can sit at home.- Paula Kennedy
"I was basically being told that 'you're not welcome here' and that's certainly how I felt," she told CBC News. "It's a really awful feeling. As a doctor, you don't go to medical school so you can sit at home."
Kennedy, who was chief of radiology in Gander until 2015, alleges she was unfairly passed up for a promotion when the job was expanded to include another hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor.
After she complained, she said Central Health administrators retaliated by trying to damage her professional reputation.
According to Kennedy, vice-president of medical services Jeff Cole initiated what she called "a sham peer-review process, which is basically a severe form of mobbing where a group of administrators go after a doctor with the intention to end their career."
Over the past three years, Kennedy has filed multiple internal complaints, and another with the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission
In a lawsuit she filed in 2016 against Cole and Central Health, Kennedy alleged the administrators ignored her qualifications and instead relied on a "serious but unproven" allegation that she had herself harassed a colleague.
She alleges Cole discussed the allegation publicly at a meeting of doctors in Gander, but no formal complaint was ever filed, and no investigation into the allegation was performed.
"It had never been brought to my attention before, it was the first I'd heard of it, and human resources basically failed — not failed, they refused to investigate those allegations," she said.
"And yet that was the allegation used to deny me a position as chief of radiology, and also then eventually used to fire me in July of 2017."
Kennedy said Central Health management were angry about an interview she gave to CBC in December 2015, when she came to the support of colleague Michelle Ong, who herself alleged bullying and harassment.
"Cole took great issue with the CBC interview, and that became part of my evaluation," she said. "The message that's being sent is that, 'Don't speak out publicly about what's happening here.'"
Ong resigned from her position at Central Health in January, writing, "No one cares enough to make a change to make the work environment better for physicians in Gander."
Kennedy said the bullying and harassment escalated in 2017, when she reapplied for hospital privileges, as is standard for fee-for-service physicians.
In a letter Cole wrote, as part of Kennedy's credential review process, he said Kennedy had "shown disrespect and opposition" toward the doctor who was promoted instead of her.
He wrote that her comments to CBC constituted "unsubstantiated public allegations;" and said her lawyer, Jerome Kennedy, had "engaged in a litigious and vexatious campaign of communications" about Central Health.
Paula Kennedy said Cole should never have written that letter and shouldn't have been involved in her credential review, as the two were engaged in a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.
She's asking for Cole to be removed from a position of authority over her until an independent review of her situation can be completed.
Removal and appeal
Kennedy's performance evaluation was completed in April 2017. All criteria related to patient assessment and care were marked satisfactory.
But she was given poor marks for her relationship with administration and for not sitting on committees.
Dr. Thomas Poole, who performed the evaluation, said Kennedy had been "disrespectful to [the diagnostic imaging] team and CEO Central Health," and showed "disrespectful behaviour towards administration" in her CBC interview.
According to a letter sent by Jerome Kennedy, the CEO of the health authority then decided not to renew Kennedy's hospital privileges.
That decision was appealed to the Central Health board of directors, and Paula Kennedy's privileges were reinstated in October, with the expectation that her situation would be reviewed in another year's time.
I can't sit down and read out a list of CTs … one eye on the computer, and one eye looking over my back.- Paula Kennedy
"The committee hopes that Dr. Kennedy will use the coming year to become a 'team player' as her counsel asserted she was committed to doing," the appeal committee wrote in its decision,
But Kennedy decided to take medical leave. She feels her workplace is not safe to return to.
"I can't sit down and read out a list of CTs or a list of X-rays and have one eye on the computer, and one eye looking over my back, wondering is someone else going to make a false allegation of harassment."
Health minister won't get involved
Kennedy detailed her complaints against Central Health and its administration in an extensive interview with CBC Radio's Central Morning Show.
"I'm fully expecting to be fired," she said. "But like I said my options are to stay home and lose my career because I've just been out of work for so long, or to come in here and take a chance that perhaps someone might step up and do the right thing."
She is asking for Newfoundland and Labrador politicians to intervene in her case. She said she was inspired by female MHAs who've detailed their complaints of harassment by colleagues.
But Health Minister John Haggie said he won't get involved.
"The role of government isn't to take sides, it is not to step in and be partisan. The role of government is to enable people to work in a safe environment," he said.
"My message is that there are processes that are available for people who feel that the system has not worked the way it should. There's the office of the citizen's representative. there is the court of law."
An external review of Central Health released in May detailed multiple complaints about Central Health, with staff describing a "Wild West" mentality and a "toxic" culture at the Gander hospital.
"Effective leaders including physicians need to lead by example — yelling, bullying, disrespecting or humiliating staff or colleagues cannot be tolerated," the report said.
Haggie said the health authority has a new CEO and board of directors, and the public should still have confidence in them.
Cost to the public
Kennedy estimated that her dispute with Central Health has cost taxpayers thousands, between court costs and fees to fly in temporary, locum physicians to fill in for her shifts while she's been off on medical leave.
Her lawyer estimated in May 2017 that Central Health had spent $110,000 on internal reviews and reports, and another $52,000 for lawyers.
We do not accept disrespectful behaviour.- Gaitane Villeneuve
A spokesperson for Central Health refused an interview on Kennedy's allegations but, in a statement, said it was committed to a safe and respectful work environment.
"While Central Health doesn't publicly comment on individual human resources matters, the issue of respectful workplaces is something we dedicate time and resources to across our organization," said Gaitane Villeneuve.
"We do not accept disrespectful behaviour in our facilities or online. We have established policies, processes, and people in place to address client complaints, workplace conflicts, performance accountability, and allegations of bullying and harassment," she wrote.
"In addition, training and interpersonal development sessions are offered to all employees and physicians."
Poole, who oversaw part of Kennedy's credential review, also declined to comment. Messages left with Cole at his office and via email were not returned.