Nunavut orders health-care review following CBC investigation

Following a CBC News investigation, Nunavut's health minister has ordered an independent external review of how the department mishandled the case of a nurse facing numerous allegations.

Nurse facing numerous allegations promoted by government

Makibi Timilak died in April 2012, after a nurse allegedly refused to see him. (Family photo)

Nunavut's health minister has ordered an independent external review of how the department mishandled the case of a nurse facing numerous allegations. 

Monica Ell made the announcement in the legislature on Thursday afternoon after a CBC News investigation aired detailing how officials promoted a nurse in Cape Dorset who faced about 20 complaints about her practice and harassment of colleagues. 

Asked if she would make the findings public, Ell said "I would certainly hope so."

CBC News recently obtained internal government emails in which health officials admit that they put the public health of Cape Dorset "at risk" by leaving the accused nurse in her job. She was later promoted to the top nursing post in Cape Dorset.

The nurse in question, Debbie McKeown, 56, of Thunder Bay, Ont., faces nearly 20 complaints about her nursing skills. 

Gwen Slade, a veteran nurse who filed some of the complaints against McKeown, said she welcomed the health minister's announcement of an independent review, saying she hopes it looks at all the officials involved in handling the case.

"But at the same time, they have to take the positive out of this because this is the time to make things better … to face what wasn't right and change it," said Slade about what she hopes will be the broader goals of the review.

However, she was concerned about whether the report will be made public.

"This is a very public matter," said Slade from her Trenton, Ont., home. "There cannot be any secrets. A government, other than the level of national security, should really not have secrets."

'Immediate dismissal' recommended

One of the complaints stemmed from the 2012 death of a three-month-old Inuk boy, Makibi Timilak. The boy died from a common viral infection after the nurse allegedly refused to see him when his mother called the health centre. Nunavut policy requires that nurses see babies under a year who are sick.

Makibi's mother, Neevee Akesuk, told CBC News she's relieved the government is "trying to do something" about how they mishandled the case and said she hopes the report gets made public.

Other allegations include that McKeown brought a premature baby to a smoke-filled party, refused to see other patients and misdiagnosed others.

The government knew about numerous complaints over the past two years and did not remove McKeown from her nursing position. In fact, sometime after Makibi's death, McKeown was promoted to the acting nurse-in-charge, a position that involves not only overseeing a team of nurses but treating patients.

In two separate incidents in 2012 and 2013, the government found McKeown guilty of harassing her co-workers, according to government emails.

Regional health directors recommended "immediate dismissal" of McKeown after investigating her for the second harassment complaint, according to government emails. However, the government's employee relations unit overturned that recommendation, called it a "witch hunt" and instructed the health officials to reinstate McKeown. 

Earlier this year, health directors in the Baffin region recommended that McKeown be "terminated immediately" from her position as supervisor or nurse-in-charge of the Cape Dorset Health Centre. 

A source familiar with the case says the government didn't dismiss the nurse.

It wasn't until May, when the nursing college stepped in, that some action was taken. The college suspended McKeown's licence and is still investigating a number of complaints against her.

Afraid to raise concerns?

In the legislature on Thursday afternoon, David Joanasie, an MLA who represents the South Baffin region where Cape Dorset resides, stressed the importance of making sure health care professionals and Nunavummiut are "not afraid to raise concerns" about quality of health care in their communities.

That was an issue raised with the Cape Dorset story. Slade, the nurse who filed complaints about McKeown, said she felt like permanent nurses were treated like gold while the voices of the large contingency of casual and agency nurses that rotate in and out of the communities weren't heard.

CBC News spoke with numerous sources, including many nurses, who said the government rarely fired nurses because of their difficulties attracting and retaining nurses. The government, in a written statement, said that it's facing the same shortage challenges felt elsewhere.

Recent figures from the territory show that 35 per cent of their full-time nursing positions are not filled.

When asked about ensuring that nurses and residents feel comfortable raising concerns, Health Minister Monica Ell said, "The well-being of all Nunavummiut and the level of service we provide in our health centres are vital."

For the full story on what happened to Makibi and how the government handled the case, read CBC's "Death and Denial in Cape Dorset."

With files from CBC's Shaun Malley


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