Ontario’s health minister, Dr. Eric Hoskins, is ordering a review of a controversial piece of legislation that gives medical regulatory bodies discretion on whether to alert police when one of their members may have committed a crime.
Critics have been calling for mandatory reporting to authorities. The review of the decades-old legislation will involve all 23 of the province’s regulatory colleges.
A Star investigation found two Mississauga health practitioners disciplined for professional misconduct after admitting to sexually abusing patients were not reported by colleges to police. One psychologist was later charged with multiple counts of sexual assault after a victim, not the college, came forward.
“I’m deeply concerned about the things I’ve heard, including what the Star has brought to our attention,” Hoskins said Thursday. “It’s been brought to my attention that there are some things we may need to change.”
The Star revealed Ontario’s practices differ from those of medical regulators in Alberta and some American states, which must by law report to authorities when a doctor is suspected of committing a criminal offence.
After the Star highlighted the two recent cases, experts have argued the province’s Regulated Health Professions Act, which governs all the medical regulatory bodies across Ontario, protects physicians before patients.
Dr. Sastri Maharajh, a family physician, was disciplined for professional misconduct by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario last summer. He admitted to either resting his cheek on or placing his mouth on the breasts of as many as 13 female patients. He was suspended for eight months and can now practise on male patients only.
Peel police said they would launch an investigation if the college lodged a complaint. The college is keeping secret whether it has reached out to police, but Maharajh was not being investigated as of Thursday.
Last week, Vincent Lo, a former psychologist, was arrested and charged with three counts of sexual assault in relation to incidents dating back to 2001. Two years ago, Lo was disciplined by the College of Psychologists of Ontario for professional misconduct after he admitted he had sexually touched a male patient.
Although specific elements of the act have been reviewed since it was enacted in 1991, Hoskins said the broader issue of professional misconduct that is criminal in nature hasn’t been evaluated since then.
“I’m confident that we’ve got a strong piece of legislation in place, but the action that I’m taking today in terms of asking the ministry to come back and advise me on how to review it — that, I think, is important because if the legislation can be made even stronger, then it should be stronger,” he said.
The colleges need to be more transparent by adopting mandatory reporting, said Mary Wiktorowicz, associate dean in the faculty of health at York University.
“Right now, the college is protecting (its members),” she said.
Disciplinary processes through the colleges are meant to be in addition to a criminal process, not an easy way out for doctors, said Lorian Hardcastle, a scholar and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in health law.
“(The colleges) haven’t opted to go the route of mandatory disclosure, and it’s difficult to see very many reasons why that may be the case.”
Hoskins said much has changed in terms of social norms since the legislation was enacted, and so have levels of tolerance for professional misconduct, especially of a sexual nature.
The minister could not say when any changes to the act would take place, but he said the ministry will work with the different regulatory bodies “in the coming short while.”
Critics also called for a review of what circumstances involving sexual abuse lead to mandatory revocation of a practitioner’s licence under the act.
Currently, mandatory revocation is required in the case of intercourse involving a patient, as well as various forms of contact with the genitals, the anus and the mouth, or masturbation in the presence of a patient. If a doctor performs another type of sexual act with a patient, the panel can also decide to suspend or impose specified terms, conditions and limitations on the licence. Critics have argued that having different sanctions for different sexual acts weakens legislation that was touted as a zero-tolerance act at its inception.