Increased Patient Protections
Last year in November, the Alberta government passed Bill 21: An Act to Protect Patients. The new amendments to the Health Professions Act are in line with other provinces’ recent changes regarding sexual assault and sexual misconduct legislation, and signal an increased appreciation for patient safety. As health professionals, opticians need to be aware of the changes that affect all regulatory colleges under the HPA, and prepare for them through education. Watch for articles and continuing education opportunities related to sexual assault and sexual misconduct as the year progresses. Some of the requirements of the new legislation have already been carried out, and some will go into effect on April 1st.
Sexual Abuse and Sexual Misconduct
The purpose of amending the Health Professions Act is to better enforce protections for patients with complaints of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. In the past, a lack of clear legislation meant that cases of sexual abuse or misconduct were subject to a wide range of disciplinary actions that did not offer a set standard of protection across professions. Additionally, the lack of mandatory training in trauma response meant that some colleges were unable to care for patients experiencing the effects of trauma as effectively as others.
The amendments to the HPA clearly define ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘sexual misconduct’ and establish consistent penalties for all regulated health professionals in findings of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.
The legislation amendments include:
- restrictions on the use of informal resolution procedures,
- requirements for the composition of Hearing Tribunals and training, and
- mandatory sanctions.
Criminal Record Checks
Although most changes go into effect on April 1, 2019, some of the requirement deadlines have already passed, including changes to our Standards of Practice and requirements about criminal record checks.
All health care practitioners in Alberta are required to submit criminal record checks to their Regulatory Colleges. The ACAO is using an online service called BackCheck to obtain the criminal record checks required; BackCheck is nationally recognized and secure. A criminal record check is now required in order to process all new applications to the college.
As part of the amendments to the HPA, the public will have increased access to members’ disciplinary history. In findings of sexual assault or sexual misconduct, the information must be made available on the college’s website; this transparency will help maintain public confidence in the profession.
Going into effect on April 1st, there will be mandatory sanctions for health professionals found to have committed sexual abuse or sexual misconduct towards a patient:
- Sexual Abuse: In findings of sexual abuse, the member’s license will be permanently cancelled.
- Sexual Misconduct: In findings of sexual misconduct, the member’s license will be suspended, and any additional sanctions are at the discretion of the hearing tribunal.
Consent vs Power and Trust
All health professions are different in terms of how much power imbalance exists between health care providers and patients, but across the board there is a recognized need for regulations about appropriate conduct. Due to the position of power and trust that health providers have over their patients, a consensual sexual relationship with a patient is not possible. When you are administering care and your patient is relying on your services, you are required to keep your relationship professional, both inside and outside of work.
Each regulatory college, including the Alberta College and Association of Opticians, has been given the ability to define who is a ‘patient’ in their Standards of Practice. Our Standards of Practice have been amended to include a definition of ‘patient’ that considers when consensual sexual relationships are allowed with former patients, and allows for spousal exceptions in cases where it is necessary for an optician to administer services to their spouse.
Patient Relations Program
Under the new amendments, each regulatory college is required to establish a patient relations program. This program must include measures for preventing and addressing sexual abuse and sexual misconduct towards patients by regulated members. Some of the necessary pieces of the Patient Relations program are:
- educational requirements for regulated members,
- educational guidelines for the conduct of health professionals towards patients,
- training for the ACAO’s staff, Council and Hearing Tribunals on trauma-informed practices, and
- assistance for the public in understanding the ACAO’s complaints process.
We know that the majority of opticians maintain professional boundaries and treat their patients with respect. These new amendments to the Health Professions Act offer security for patients of all health professionals, and provide an opportunity for professional development to ensure that you are providing the best care possible. Additionally, because of the dual-role nature of opticians as both health practitioners and sales associates, you may not have considered the imbalanced relationship between you as a health professional and your patient. The new legislation brings to the forefront these imbalances, and your role and responsibility in maintaining professionalism in a sales setting.