Malpractice lawyer getting calls about Stittsville clinic

An Ottawa medical malpractice lawyer says she's getting calls from patients blindsided by a health scare involving improperly cleaned surgical tools at a Stittsville family clinic.

Main Street Family Medical Centre given the OK to resume minor surgeries after surgical tool cleaning lapse

Doctors at the Main Street Family Medical Centre were barred in April from performing minor surgeries, such as removing moles and sutures, until they improved infection control measures. They have since been given permission to resume most minor surgeries. (Judy Trinh/CBC News)

An Ottawa medical malpractice lawyer says she's getting calls from patients blindsided by a health scare involving improperly cleaned surgical tools at a Stittsville family clinic.

Andrea Girones said patients have been inquiring about legal action, saying they're stressed and anxious about being tested. Their anxiety has not reached a "compensable level," Girones said, but that could change if anyone tests positive for an infectious disease.

Earlier this month, about 4,600 patients who had minor surgeries at the Main Street Family Medical Centre were told to get tested for HIV and hepatitis B and C.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) couldn't identify when the tool cleaning lapse began, so patients who had procedures dating back to 2003, when the clinic first opened, were asked. The risk of contracting an infectious disease is quite low, OPH said.

"I don't think in this case there is one person solely to blame," said Girones, adding she was astonished a cleaning lapse could go undetected for as many as 15 years.

"Doctors and nurses, everybody from cleaning staff to the triage nurse, has to participate. It's a shared responsibility. All it takes is for one person not to follow protocols and it could be disastrous."

It's a view echoed by Deb Clendinneng, a former post-operative nurse who helped design the medical device reprocessing certification program at Algonquin College.

There are governing bodies and associations that set standards for cleaning or reprocessing medical tools, including Public Health Ontario and the Canadian Standards Association, she said.

Deb Clendinneng, a former nurse, is an expert in how to disinfect medical tools. (Judy Trinh CBC News)

Ensuring surgical tools are safe to use takes multiple steps and any error along the way could lead to contamination, she said. If, for example, blood or skin is not properly removed from a tool, putting it in a sterilizing machine just bakes the germs in.

"If you think of a white of an egg cooking, it coagulates and traps viruses and bacteria in that coagulant," Clendinneng said.

Inspectors found 25 violations in infection control protocols at the clinic, among them improperly sterilized tools at risk of being cross-contaminated with blood and urine samples, and the reuse and repackaging of supplies that were only supposed to be used once.

Ottawa Public Health refused to say if there was a designated staff member at the clinic in charge of infection control, only saying this was "a clinic-wide issue with infection prevention and control deficiencies."

Medical clinics only inspected after a complaint

Although the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario does regular inspections at clinics where doctors perform more invasive procedures, such as plastic surgeries or colonoscopies, primary medical clinics are only inspected when someone files a complaint.

Dr. Joshua Tepper, CEO of Health Quality Ontario, an agency that advises the province on health matters, said the Stittsville clinic lapse shows why regular inspections of family clinics could be useful. But he also said the inspections could place an administrative burden on doctors.

"How do you find the right balance of appropriate regulatory oversight to ensure safety and still make sure the system can function effectively in a manageable way for patients and physicians?" he said.

"Doctors are professional people. They don't want to harm their patients. They want to provide good, safe care."

The Main Street Family Medical Centre has a single owner and five family doctors. Since it opened, the clinic has seen approximately 90,000 patients.

Ottawa Public Health said the clinic can now resume performing minor surgeries, since it has passed subsequent inspections.

It cannot give people stitches.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons, meanwhile, hasn't completed its investigation.

CBC News emailed clinic owner Darren Steinburg and left several messages at the clinic requesting an interview. A receptionist at the clinic said Steinburg declined to comment.