Crisis at Trillium Health Partners Demands an Intervention

Over 20 years ago, I and a number of other physicians were involved in a significant dispute with our local hospital administration. The specifics don’t really matter now (it’s ancient history). But in general terms physicians like myself felt strongly that we were fighting for patient care against an administration that didn’t value our input or opinion. Administration at the time undoubtedly felt differently. Eventually, both sides became entrenched and the Ministry of Health had to send in a team to sort this out, after we went public with our concerns. The MOH bureaucrat even fashioned a new phrase, referring to their team as “Interveners”.

All of which is to say I still get nightmares when I hear of in house disputes at a hospital being made public, most recently at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga. Not working at that hospital, all I can go on is what CTV News reported. 40 physicians at Trillium Health Partners have hired a lawyer alleging:

  • physicians “are targets of an abusive and unprofessional behaviour of the hospital administration.”
  • “terrified for their livelihoods”
  • “fearful to go work”
  • a physician was called “crazy”
  • “a toxic culture rooted in harassment, intimidation and threats”
  • an environment where “physicians are afraid to practice medicine”

All of this certainly brought back my own PTSD at the events that led myself and my colleagues to take action over two decades ago.

As mentioned, I don’t know the specifics there. But I can say a few things in general from not only my previous experience, but from other institutions where I’m aware of doctors speaking out.

First, doctors in general hate speaking to the media and going public about internal conflicts. It’s one thing to talk about medical issues that pertain to the health care needs of the population as a whole. But to go out and air dirty laundry? It’s not in their nature. For something to reach this point, it usually means that every possible avenue has been exhausted, and there is a real concern for patient care.

Second, every hospital has multiple processes for addressing concerns. There’s a Medical (or Professional) Staff Association that advocates for the needs of their professional staff. There are numerous committee structures and depending on the concern the issues can be brought there. There are internal complaints processes and various Human Resource department protocols. There are chiefs of departments whose role includes addressing concerns fairly. Basically a lot of ways to bring problems to the attention of the higher ups.

Third, doctors in general put up with a lot of bureaucratic non-sense just so they can get the job of looking after patients done. Whether it’s ludicrously difficult hospital IT systems, policies that require us to duplicate our efforts, or any number of roadblocks, physicians complain privately about the working environment, but put up with it because we want patients well looked after.

In that context – to see physicians do what they’ve done, and write to the Minister demanding she appoint a supervisor (essentially someone to take over the administration of the hospital) signals a complete failure of all of the internal processes, and a dramatic escalation. This only happens when the two sides are entrenched.

What next?

What’s Likely to Happen:

Usually, administrations in such a situation tend to circle the wagons and go on the defensive. Attempts are made to minimize the concerns or denigrate the physicians as a small group not representative of the whole. Evidence is produced suggesting the concerns were appropriately reviewed and dealt with.

As an aside, Trillium has already done this by having their own lawyer investigate the complaints and, surprise surprise, the lawyer Trillium pays found Trillium did nothing wrong. I would have thought for issues of this magnitude it would be appropriate to bring in an external person to review. Maybe Trillium didn’t do anything wrong. But surely having an external person say that would carry more weight.

Then, if physicians make enough noise, the issues continue to percolate, the general public expresses concern and politicians get scared. In our area, the issue became so toxic that enough physicians decided to resign their privileges and our Emergency Department was in danger of shutting down part time.

After months of agony, somebody at the MOH (plus/minus political intervention) realizes they have to do something and appoints a third party with the power to actually do something and make some necessary changes.

What Should Happen:

Why go through additional months of grief? There’s clearly a crisis there. The residents of the catchment area of the hospital must surely have concerns about the care they will receive when they read the articles from CTV News. Having doctors who are fearful of the working environment simply cannot contribute to good patient care.

The MOH appointed their “Intervener” in my hospital and the Intervener had the power to tell both Administration and Physicians when they were offside. I personally got told I was going too far offside by him during the process, and I know Admin was also told they had to back down on some things. At least he was fair.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong at Trillium, but patients at Trillium need to know that something is being done to address these concerns and ensure there is safe environment for the caregivers. To that end, the MOH needs to appoint an independent third party to help the situation sooner, rather than later.

For a link to CTV News’ follow up report on the issues that includes comments from yours truly, click here.