N.S. defends blocking CBC's hospital data request

A Nova Scotia health official is defending his decision not to release information to the CBC including negative hospital statistics, but critics say more transparency could make hospitals safer.

Journalism professor says it raises questions about accountability

Canada's hospital budget is a staggering $56 billion a year, most of it spent on acute care hospitals. (iStock)

A Nova Scotia health official is defending his decision not to release data to the CBC about the province's hospitals, but critics say more transparency could make the health care system safer.

On Dec. 19, 2012, CBC asked all provinces and territories to allow the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) — an organization that collects hospital and health-care data — to release information submitted by the hospitals. Provincial and territorial permission is required as part of CIHI's data release policy.

CBC's flagship investigative show the fifth estate planned to use the data for Rate My Hospital, a special investigation that presents Canada's first-ever hospital report card and profiles more than 600 hospitals across the country on its website. The show wanted to compare eight indicators tracked by Canadian hospitals, including mortality rates on weekends and foreign objects left in patients during surgery.

Deputy health minister, Kevin McNamara, initially approved the release of hospital data with a letter to CIHI dated Jan. 18, but six days later revoked the approval.

He said he has to be very careful about releasing adverse hospital statistics.

"If I make a statement that impacts a practitioner then they'd have the right to sue me, because I've impacted their livelihood. I've impacted their reputation," he said.

"It was not against information going out. It was making sure that the interpretation was accurate."

Days after Nova Scotia revoked its initial approval letter, the province's Health Department then alerted communications directors in all nine of its district health authorities suggesting they, too, refuse a separate request CBC sent to the hospitals.

"In this instance it appears it was a blanket decision to hide behind a wall of co-operation," said Fred Vallance-Jones, a journalism professor and freedom-of-information expert in Halifax.

Vallance-Jones said releasing specific data is key to creating accountability.

"Once you start releasing the information at a hospital-by-hospital level, what's happening is you're starting to demand accountability from specific people running specific institutions."

CBC spoke to hospital CEO David Musyj in Windsor, Ont., who said he thinks complete transparency makes hospitals safer.

"It will elevate everybody's game and make everybody better," he said.

Back in Nova Scotia, McNamara said he is planning a system to publicize handwashing and infection rates at the province's hospitals.

However, he stands by his decision not to let journalists handle raw data as reported by hospitals.

"Having seen the show and the way they portrayed the information that was provided, I'm convinced my decision was the right one."

To contact the Rate My Hospital team with tips or information related to the series, please email