When the College receives a written complaint about a physician, a copy of the complaint is sent to the physician who has 30 days to respond. A copy of the physician’s response is then sent to the complainant for comment. The physician is then permitted a final written response. However, if the physician has nothing further to add, a second response is not required.
Physicians may sometimes need more than 30 days to respond to a complaint. If this happens, the Professional Conduct Department may grant an extension to the physician, in order for them to prepare and submit a written response.
How Complaints are Investigated
All written complaints are sent to the College’s Investigation Committee for review, investigation and decision. Each Committee consists of four physicians and one member of the public. College staff members assist the Investigations Committees, but play no role in the decisions the Committees make. The Committee may request additional information or it may wish to interview the physician and/or the complainant.
The Investigation Committee usually begins by examining the following:
- The complaint
- The physician’s response
- Other information, which may include medical records
Depending on the nature of the case, the Committee may seek more information to assist in investigating the complaint. This can include:
- Reviewing other records
- Conducting interviews
- Consulting with experts
- Undertaking audits or assessments
The complainant may be asked to meet with the Investigation Committee if Committee members require additional information or clarification. If so, the complainant may be accompanied by a friend, a family member or some other support person. The physician will not be present if the Committee wishes to meet with the complainant.
Actions after a Complaint has been Filed
After reviewing the materials, the Investigation Committee will take one of the following actions:
- Complaint Dismissed. Due to insufficient information or evidence that the care provided was substandard or unprofessional.
- Counselling. The physician may be advised on how to improve his or her conduct or practice.
- Caution. The physician may be cautioned that if the conduct in question recurs, more serious disciplinary action may be considered.
- Reprimand. This is a finding of professional misconduct that is entered on a physician’s formal discipline record. The Investigation Committee can only issue a reprimand with the consent of the physician. If the physician does not consent, the complaint is referred to a Hearing Committee (see below).
- Hearing. In cases where there is evidence of professional misconduct, incompetence or conduct unbecoming, the Investigation Committee may refer the complaint to a Hearing Committee. At this point, the College becomes the formal complainant and charges are filed against the physician. The Hearing process is similar to a trial, with sworn evidence and legal submissions by a prosecutor acting for the College and a lawyer representing the physician. Complainants may be called to testify as witnesses. In some cases, the matter may be resolved with a settlement agreement. Hearing Committee decisions can range from dismissal of the complaint to removal of the physician from practice.
The College takes great care to ensure that complaint information is kept confidential. Staff and Investigation Committee members are bound by confidentiality agreements and information in the College’s possession is strictly protected by a number of security measures. The College also asks complainants and doctors to avoid speaking publicly about a complaint while it is under investigation.
Meetings of Investigation Committees are not open to the public and their decisions (with the exception of consensual reprimands) are not made public. Proceedings before Hearing Committees are usually open to the public, except in situations where sensitive information is involved. Decisions of Hearing Committees are published, but in some cases, publication bans may be imposed on portions of the evidence and the decision. Hearing Committee decisions do not ordinarily identify patient names.
The College does not award financial compensation. People seeking financial compensation should seek legal advice, as this is a matter for the courts. To find a lawyer in Nova Scotia, contact the Public Legal Education Society’s Lawyer Referral Service in Halifax at 902-455-3135, or check the Lawyers section in the Yellow Pages.