Need for an Independent Third Party/External Ombuds in Medicine

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As the founder of the Edmonton Women in Health Network, I have listened to several troubling stories of overt and covert sexism and racism that women physicians continue to endure within their healthcare and academic institutions.

The cards are heavily stacked against physician complainants and in favour of the healthcare institutions who have in-house lawyers, systemic biases embedded in processes and culture, and no independent body to hold the institution and its leaders accountable. A complaint can take years to resolve and there may be an absence of consequences for the perpetrator, and counterintuitively, even a promotion. Without checks and balances in place, the racist and sexist behaviour continues and goes unchecked.

One solution that has been put forth and which has growing support is the establishment of a third-party ombudsperson or independent office. This would be a safe place for physicians who choose to report mistreatment to seek guidance and counsel. This would increase the fairness of the current process which is heavily weighted on the side of the institution. The recommendation of an ombudsperson was in fact mentioned in the draft AHS Female Physician Leaders document but for unclear reasons this recommendation was removed by AHS from the final report.

On June 30, 2020, the Alberta Medical Association also endorsed the need for an independent office stating, “…the time has come to establish an independent office where physicians can report concerns, safe from reprisal, and actions for positive change can be employed." 

Due to the recent media exposure of an egregious racist incident occurring at the Grande Prairie hospital in 2016, the Health Minister has directed AHS to revise their bylaws within 60 days. This presents an opportunity for AHS to improve the process for physicians experiencing mistreatment. Physicians are a valued resource and deserve a fair process with the option available to report to an external ombudsperson. In addition, the current complaint process should be reviewed from the perspective of physician victims who have gone through the process in order to identify improvements that could be made in this process.