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Question: I have a complaint with the care my father received at an Ontario hospital. I’ve heard in the news media that the province has a new patient ombudsman – Christine Elliott. Can she help me?
Answer: Ontario is the first province to establish an ombudsman to deal specifically with the concerns of patients and their caregivers.
Christine Elliott’s appointment was announced in December. Since then, she has been busy getting this unique office up and running.
On July 1st, her office officially opened and it has already received several hundred calls from the public, says Ms. Elliott, who had been a Progressive Conservative member of the provincial legislature for almost a decade before resigning her seat last year.
“People have been waiting a long time for this office to open,” says the former Whitby-Oshawa MPP, who had been her party’s health critic. “When I was involved in politics, a lot of the questions that came into my community office from my constituents related to health-care matters. So, I think there is a big desire out there on the part of the public to have someone deal with their health-care concerns.”
She knows the challenges faced by some families from first-hand experience. Her son John has a mild intellectual disability that resulted from a childhood bout of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. “I started to see how families were really struggling if they have a child with special needs,” she says, recalling her many years of community volunteer work with health organizations involved in her son’s care.
Ms. Elliott, considers her appointment to be part of a trend toward “patient-centred care.” Her office, she adds, “can bring forward the voice of patients and families in areas where their voices might not have been heard and where change is needed.”
In particular, the patient ombudsman will deal with unresolved complaints involving hospitals, long-term care homes as well as home and community care.
However, if the complaint is about a specific doctor, nurse or other health-care provider, then the body that regulates that specific profession will continue to handle it.
Ms. Elliott notes that complaints tend to be “multi-faceted,” involving a variety of elements. “The task of my office will be to sort out what part of their complaint we can deal with and what parts need to be dealt with by other organizations.”
Before her office becomes involved, though, patients or caregivers must have exhausted the normal complaints process of the health-care facility.
They then need to fill out a form that outlines the complaint, as they see it, and what they are looking for in terms of a “satisfactory resolution.” The forms are available on the website: www.patientombudsman.ca. “We, of course, will help people who have trouble putting the complaint into writing,” says Ms. Elliott.
Once the complaint is filed, a member of her staff will follow up with a phone call to get more details and try to resolve the dispute. If a resolution isn’t reached, the case may be assigned to a patient-ombudsman investigator who might need to conduct more extensive interviews with the health-care facility involved.
The patient ombudsman’s office plays the role of an impartial third party that tries to mediate a solution. “We advocate for fairness,” says Ms. Elliott. “We want to make sure that we treat everybody with respect – patients and health-sector organizations alike,” she adds.
“When people have a chance to see the perspective of the other side in a different light, that can sometimes lead to resolutions that at first glance might not seem possible.”
She readily acknowledges that some patients or their caregivers may not always be happy with the outcomes. Even so, she believes most people have realistic goals and expectations.
“The vast majority of people really want what we call the common-good resolution,” explains Ms. Elliott. “They want to make sure that the same negative experience they have had isn’t experienced by anyone else.”
In addition to probing individual complaints, her office also has the authority to carry out investigations into trends and system-wide problems. Her recommendations will be in a publicly accessible annual report to the Minister of Health and Long Term Care.
“It is early days yet and I think we really need a little bit more time to say definitely where the real problem areas are,” she says.
Ms. Elliott’s office is not set up in the usual manner of an ombudsman. Unlike the provincial ombudsman and auditor, she is not an independent officer of the legislature. She is technically an employee of Health Quality Ontario, a provincial body under the Health Ministry.
Some critics have suggested that Ms. Elliott may be limited in her ability to speak openly about the problems she encounters.
But Ms. Elliott says her office’s connection to the Ministry of Health is well suited to her responsibilities. Her reports to the minster will enable her to speak on behalf of patients “at a level where it can truly make a difference in terms of policy,” she says. “So, I see it as a great advantage actually.”