The Victoria Times-Colonist ran articles last fall about delinquent doctors remaining licensed to practice. Evidently, doctors’ secretive, self-funded, self-regulating disciplinary and licensing body, the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons, is more interested in protecting doctors than in protecting the public. Under questioning, provincial government representatives pleaded helplessness; they had no authority over the college.
But after continuing scandalized media coverage, Health Minister George Abbott pledged to legislate more public accountability for our public doctors.
I was skeptical. After all, this scandal wasn’t new. I wrote about it myself for Monday Magazine ten years ago.
A former chief of psychiatry of Victoria’s Eric Martin Pavilion had been found guilty of drugging a female patient into a “zombie-like” state and sexually assaulting her over months while working in Ontario. He was back practising psychiatry here. I interviewed government representatives locally, regionally, provincially and nationally, and they responded in a chorus of, “That’s troubling, but we’re helpless. The college has authority.”
Meanwhile, the BC College’s deputy registrar dismissively told me he thought Ontario’s “zero tolerance” policy for doctors sexually abusing their patients was “hawkish”.
Feeling appalled? That’s why, I discovered, the college is secretive. Another case I came across involved Victoria native Dr. James Tyhurst, former head of the UBC psychiatric department. A woman complained her “therapy” involved having to strip naked, kneel and call Tyhurst “master”. The college interviewed the psychiatrist and then issued a letter of reprimand, merely advising Tyhurst that “the degree of subjugation was unwarranted and its effectiveness questionable”. These facts became public and Tyhurst eventually stopped practising not thanks to the college, but in the wake of prominent sexual assault court cases involving several more female patients.
Other outraged local and national media followed up on our Monday story, but provincial reps persisted in pleading helplessness. (Strangely, the T-C vigorously defended the college and local psychiatrist, so they may this year win a newspaper award for exposing a scandal they helped suppress a decade earlier. See “MD Barred in Ontario Finds Post in Victoria”, Victoria Times-Colonist, June 24, 1998. This bizarre article by T-C legal staff writer Richard Watts included interviews with only the College and the convicted doctor, referred to the female patient as an “alleged” victim, and described Ontario’s policy of suspending licences for sexual assault as “arbitrary and harsh”.)
Eventually, more complaints prompted BC’s Ombudsman to launch an investigation into all our self-regulating health professional colleges. In 2003, he reported that, “Some colleges have demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of their legal responsibilities and of the requirements of fairness… [they] do not appear to have fully accepted or understood what it means to act in the public interest.”
Yet after taking power, the Liberals’ cutbacks forced a stop to the Ombudsman’s independent investigations of complaints against the colleges.
Similarly, at the last minute this May, the Liberals injected a loophole into their new legislation, allowing the colleges to continue to choose which kind of malfeasance warrants informing the public.
Now it’s obvious why doctors prefer to control whether their horrible deeds become publicly known. But what’s the government’s motive?
The government wants to continue to be able to plead helplessness. The reasons become clear when we consider other recent examples of this same strategy.
This April, our BC Ferries board gave themselves $30-48,000 raises while giving us price increases. Provincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon complained, then claimed he was helpless, because the board was legally “independent of government”.
Perfect. The pro-privatization Liberals essentially privatized BC Ferries, and now they can claim they aren’t responsible for its (predictably) greedy corporate actions.
In May, Prime Minister Stephen Harper shrugged helplessly to a worrying public, “I don’t think government should fool people into thinking it can control the price of gas.”
In fact, Canadians once owned our substantial oil reserves and could dictate prices. But we sold control over much of it. We later had a national oil company operating partly for the public good. But in 1984, Mulroney’s Conservatives ordered Petro-Canada to start “focusing on profitability”, and by 1990, they were privatizing it. Paul Martin’s Liberals finished the sale. These same governments entered into corporate-driven agreements covering international markets and trade which have further undermined our power to regulate domestic oil and oil prices. Today, prices rise wildly, at the whim of international financial speculators. For the good of our economy and emissions reductions, we should probably nationalize some of our oil and institute domestic price controls and wise rationing. However, that’s too much like socialism.
So instead, Harper pleads helplessness; he sounds like he cares for our plight even as he resolutely doesn’t improve it.
Basically, our governments have become clever at instituting their policies through deliberately creating or feigning helplessness. It’s the Bear Mountain Parkway Way of Parking Responsibility: You permit a mega-development next to a high-traffic bottleneck, and then a few years later announce that increasing traffic pressures have left you no choice but to build new roads.
“Created helplessness” fits particularly well with conservative political goals. How often in recent memory have conservative-leaning governments instituted tax cuts, then said helplessly they can no longer afford social programs, health care, regulatory enforcement, or the public service’s size, and simply must privatize everything?
Still, in the case of health professional colleges, it’s hard to imagine why government would continue to off-load its responsibilities, considering such ghastly, unacceptable examples described above. Yet that’s the whole point. With the college in charge, no one knows the true extent of the problems, and our elected representatives maintain a comfortable distance from such seamy public scandals and potential financial liabilities.
It’s all a terrible, growing trend. With the entire planet now approaching crisis, we surely need leadership that does more than plead helplessness at every turn as if it’s a badge of pride.
Published in Focus magazine, July, 2008.