Tougher penalties could be coming for Sask. doctors who sexually abuse patients

Saskatchewan's College of Physicians and Surgeons has struck a committee to look at how to deal with sexual boundary violations, from taking a different approach to punishing doctors to offering more supports to patients who experience harm.

Committee to table recommendations, look at more supports for patients

Dr. Brian Brownbridge, council president for the the Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons, said the regulatory body has been proactive on how it deals with sexual boundary violations by doctors, working to better educate physicians. (CBC News)

Saskatchewan's College of Physicians and Surgeons is considering tougher penalities for doctors who sexually abuse their patients. 

It's one of the issues to be reviewed by a committee struck by the regulatory body to look at boundary breaches by doctors, which is set to begin its work later this year and table recommendations to council. 

Council president Dr. Brian Brownbridge recently penned an article in the college's newsletter, stating that changes could be coming. 

"I do see a pressure on Saskatchewan to look at our present penalties and probably get in line with where they're going in the rest of the country," Brownbridge said in a recent CBC interview.

Pressure to follow Alberta's lead

He pointed to the rules in place for physicians in Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Alberta, which recently passed Bill 21, called An Act to Protect Patients.

"Before this legislation, penalties for conduct determined to be sexual abuse or sexual misconduct varied across almost 30 health regulatory colleges in Alberta and were determined on a case-by-case basis," according to the Alberta government's website.

It states that under the new rules, health professionals determined to have sexually abused a patient will face mandatory penalties, like cancelling their permit to practise. 

"Saskatchewan will likely be under pressure to accept similar durations of revocation or suspension," Brownbridge writes in his article.

"Whether this prolonged period of suspension will reduce the incidence of these violations is yet to be seen," he writes, adding it's "highly likely" the tougher penalties will be adopted here. 

Bryan Salte, the associate registrar and legal counsel for the college, said the committee will look at the idea of introducing presumptive penalties and examine whether existing punishments for sexual violations are appropriate. 

A statement provided by a government spokesperson from the Ministry of Health says the college has the power to regulate and discipline its members, adding it will work with the college to determine if any legislative changes ought to be considered. 

Increase in complaints driving review

Brownbridge said besides following what other provinces are doing, another factor driving the review is the increase of complaints coming into the college. 

"Is it part of the Me Too movement, where people are coming forward more often and willing to make the complaints?" he said. 

"It doesn't really matter what's causing it. We have to deal with it as the body that protects the public."

A recent CBC News analysis looking at the period from 1999 to 2018 found at least 20 doctors in Saskatchewan have been found guilty of, or pleaded guilty to, charges related to breaching a patient's boundaries.

In November 2018, Regina police charged Dr. Sylvester Ukabam with sexual assault against four of his patients after an investigation began in 2017. 

More supports for patients to be considered

Taking a new approach to punishing doctors is only one potential measure when it comes to tackling the problem of boundary violations, Brownbridge said, adding this issue has been on the college's radar for awhile. 

The committee will also look at more education for both physicians and patients. It will also examine how the college handles patients who come forward with complaints, including looking at support programs.

"I do feel that patients often are traumatized significantly and they may require ongoing counselling to get over this, and it can have a detrimental effect to their relationship with future physicians," Brownbridge said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story referred to Bryan Salte as a doctor and the deputy registrar of the college. In fact, he is the college's associate registrar and is not a medical doctor.
    Jan 12, 2019 10:14 AM CT

About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at stephanie.taylor@cbc.ca