By Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi
The Faculty of Communication and Design presented a panel Tuesday on the code of silence surrounding Canada’s healthcare system, exploring how Health Canada and various quasi-public agencies obstruct journalists and the public from getting access to vital information about health and health care in Canada.
Rob Cribb, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star and Ryerson journalism instructor, spoke at the panel about his personal experiences trying to access information from these organizations. He explained that one of the biggest obstacles to gaining access to vital information about health and health care in Canada is the Quality of Care Information Protection Act (QCIPA).
“QCIPA is essentially a blanket exemption hospitals can use to limit the information they are mandated to provide to the public,” said Cribb.
Because of this act, requests for information filed by journalists or members of the public can take months if not years to be answered (if their request is not denied altogether), and Cribb explained how many times, the final information that is not censored and delivered contains no relevant data.
“The reason it’s so tough is that the system is gauged against us… It’s set up to ensure secrecy,” said Cribb whom suggested 99 per cent of complaints and concerns concerning negligence filed to the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons are kept from the public.
Aside from these rare cases, the panel spoke about how a major problem in Canada is its difficulty to hold anyone accountable because of how hidden information is.
Joel Lexchin, an emergency physician at the University Health Network and a professor in the School of Health Policy and Management at York University, explained why transparency is important in regards to Health Canada, especially with the way it regulates prescription medication.
“The information Health Canada [sees about drugs] is not also seen by independent scientists,” said Lexchin. “This is no real way to know how good a job the people at Health Canada are doing… Without somebody else being able to look at that data, we have no idea.”
Lexchin said that with the limits Canada gives drug companies and Health Canada on how much they can approve to be revealed, many important details are left out.
Drug companies have to supply Health Canada with information to get their drugs on the market; results of animal tests, lab tests, and human tests. Health Canada reviews the drug before approving or denying it, but the public does not get to see these comments from the reviewers explaining their decisions, and we don’t know the names of the drugs Health Canada did not approve to be released.
Lexchin says releasing this information is vital to give doctors a better knowledge of exactly what drugs they are prescribing patients, instead of just the minimal information drug companies provide them with.
“Doctors need to get objective information… That information is in the reviews that Health Canada had done about the product, but we don’t get those reviews.”
In some cases, researchers have had to turn to the U.S.’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to gather information about drugs used in Canada because of how much easier that access is granted across the border.
“No one in Canada seems to care about it,” said Cribb. “The United States would have been outraged about this kind of security. In Canada, we smile and nod, and we say ‘oh well.’ and too often frankly, journalists do that… we don’t challenge these ridiculous delays and denials.”
He added: “There really are no checks and balances on [the industry] other than us. The only thing that strikes a moment of fear in the heart of a drug CEO… is an impending story to be published on the front page… If we’re not doing that, then there is no other check and balance that puts the public’s interest first.”