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  • ONTARIO LOOSENS BAN ON HEALTH PROFESSIONALS TREATING THEIR SPOUSES

 

Ontario loosens ban on health professionals treating their spouses

The Ontario legislature has loosened one of the world’s most stringent laws on sexual abuse in health care, allowing spouses of doctors, dentists and others to be exempted from a zero-tolerance ban on sex with patients.
GETTY IMAGES/THINKSTOCKThe Ontario legislature has loosened one of the world’s most stringent laws on sexual abuse in health care, allowing spouses of doctors, dentists and others to be exempted from a zero-tolerance ban on sex with patients.

The Ontario legislature has loosened one of the world’s most stringent laws on sexual abuse in health care, allowing spouses of doctors, dentists and others to be exempted from a zero-tolerance ban on sex with patients.

The long-standing prohibition put health professionals who treat their spouse at risk of sexual-abuse charges, and has been a source of heated debate.

Some regulators say spouses need to be included in the ban because they can be victims of a “power imbalance.”

Others have called the law nonsensical and inconvenient for professionals practicing in remote areas. It has even been used by disaffected staff or rivals to threaten or blackmail practitioners, say sources in the dental profession.

The legislature last week passed a private member’s bill that appears to accommodate the divergent views, leaving it up to individual regulatory colleges to exempt spouses if they want.

“Sexual abuse is something we all need to stand up against,” said Steve Clark, the opposition Conservative MPP who introduced the legislation. “[But] somebody like a dental hygienist, why would you treat cleaning your spouse’s teeth as sexual abuse? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The new bill is well drafted after a number of changes, stating that sexual conduct and statements still cannot occur at the time spouses are actually being treated, noted Sheamus Murphy, a spokesman for Deb Matthews, the health minister.

We’ve been inundated by spouses … saying, ‘How come my husband or wife can’t treat me?’

Provincial regulations implemented in 1993 essentially say sexual relations between patients and health professionals — from optometrists to midwives and X-ray technicians — constitute sexual abuse. The penalty can be as much as a five-year suspension and consent is not a defence.

Last year, though, the province’s Health Professions Regulatory Advisory Council issued a report calling for spouses to be exempted, saying the law was the toughest among North American and other jurisdictions it reviewed.

Mr. Clark’s bill follows through on an earlier Conservative promise to address the issue, and eventually won support from the minority Liberal government.

The bill, which still needs Royal assent before becoming law, is being applauded by the province’s dentists, who had mounted the most vigorous lobby for change.

Dentists — especially in isolated areas with no alternatives for dental care — had treated their spouses safely for over a century, and the abuse law rankled many, said Irwin Fefergrad, registrar of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario.

“We’ve been inundated by spouses … saying, ‘How come my husband or wife can’t treat me?’ ” he said.

In fact, some dentists have continued to treat their spouses, occasionally giving ammunition to competitors or disgruntled employees.

Michael Carabash, a lawyer who specializes in representing the professionals, recalled one instance where a disgruntled staff member used the law against the new owner of a dental clinic.

“This employee said, ‘I saw you treating your spouse, you shouldn’t do that, it’s sexual abuse,’ “ recalled Mr. Carabash. “She was, I guess, trying to extort the dentist for personal gain.… It caused a lot of sleepless nights.”

Meanwhile, it appears no change is coming for doctors. Their professional group — the Ontario Medical Association — favours exempting spouses, but their regulator, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, will not ask to take advantage of the new law, said Louise Verity, the associate registrar.

The college appreciates that Mr. Clark’s bill allows such agencies to choose whether to change the rules, but believes the law should have been left unchanged, she said.

Exempting spouses would bring back the defence of consent — “exactly what the zero tolerance regime was designed to combat,” open the door to lengthy debate over whether someone is a spouse and fail to protect patients subject to power imbalances, she said.

“In our experience, vulnerability to sexual abuse can and does exist both within and outside spousal relationships,” the college said in a submission last month to the legislative committee that reviewed the bill.

National Post

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