Doctors, nurses prepare for new bill to protect patients from sexual abuse

With Alberta just weeks away from launching a law designed to protect patients from sexual abuse and misconduct, the province's three dozen regulatory colleges are working behind the scenes to prepare.

Bill 21, which lays out consistent rules for groups that regulate doctors, nurses and other health professionals, comes into effect April 1.

"I think these reforms are overdue," said Lorian Hardcastle, a health law professor at the University of Calgary.

"Prior to this, the colleges could discipline the health professionals in any way they saw fit for sexual offences … and so this takes that discretion out of their hands."

Mandatory penalties

The bill lays out mandatory penalties to be levied by regulatory colleges when members are found guilty by a hearing tribunal.

For sexual abuse, health professionals will have their licence revoked, and for sexual misconduct, they will face suspension.

The legislation eliminates the option of settling these concerns through mediation. It also beefs up requirements for tribunal members, including trauma and sexual violence training and a requirement that at least one member of the panel has the same gender identity as the patient.

David Donnelly/CBC

"Hopefully it means patients will be protected from health professionals who may be inclined to abuse those patients," said Hardcastle.

Colleges will also be required to post the names of members found guilty of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct on their websites indefinitely.

Health minister reviewing plans

All of Alberta's regulatory bodies — representing professions ranging from doctors and nurses to dentists and psychologists — have spent the past several months rewriting their standards of practice to comply with the new legislation.

Those documents have now all been submitted to the province and are being reviewed by the minister of health.

"There is a lot of work underway," said Dr. Karen Mazurek, deputy registrar with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.

"Now … when there's a finding like this, the penalty will be consistent, whereas before it wasn't."

Among the work being done, the college is changing registration policies to meet new requirements such as criminal record checks.

It's preparing for more hearings — since complaints can no longer be handled through mediation. And it's working with the University of Calgary to create a training program for all of Alberta's 10,000 doctors, which it hopes to launch by the end of 2019.

Mazurek says the new legislation — and changes being made at the college level — should be reassuring for Albertans.

"Patients should feel much more confident that they will be protected, that this is not allowed. No health professional can engage in this. And the consequences if you do are serious and, in some cases, permanent," she said.

"It also sends a very, very, very strong message to all health professionals.… It's an absolute prohibition. So hopefully it's a major deterrent."

Nurses beef up rules, too

Alberta's registered nurses are also preparing for Bill 21.

"We certainly support the government's legislation," said Shelley MacGregor, deputy registrar with the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta.

According to MacGregor, her association has already implemented some of the changes ahead of the April 1 deadline — including a requirement that all applicants have a criminal records check. That wasn't the case before.

The group will also start posting disciplinary action online, and it's working to address a new requirement that regulatory bodies provide treatment and counselling to patients who have made a complaint of sexual abuse or misconduct against a member.

If these situations come up, we do feel that these measures will provide that level of protection for the public that we are mandated to provide. - Shelley MacGregor, CARNA deputy registrar

"We do have guidelines that we are working on and a fund that has been provided for that situation," she said.

"If these situations come up, we do feel that these measures will provide that level of protection for the public that we are mandated to provide."

Other health professionals affected by the legislation include physiotherapists, chiropractors and social workers.

Once Bill 21 takes effect at the start of next month, Alberta will join Ontario as the only Canadian provinces with these legislative protections in place.