Newmarket’s local hospital is overhauling its hiring and other workplace practices in the wake of an independent review called after a national newspaper investigation detailed allegations of gender discrimination, bullying and harassment of physicians in its emergency department.
Southlake Regional Health Centre ordered the workplace review in spring 2019 after a five-month investigation by the Globe and Mail found that in 16 years, no female doctors were hired under Southlake’s then-emergency department chief, Dr. Marko Duic, which included the chief’s tenure at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto.
That article, published on Dec. 16, 2018, also included allegations of other workplace issues at Southlake, including a fear of reprisal among staff who wished to raise concerns.
Dr. Duic resigned in January 2019 as Southlake’s emergency department chief, but he continues to have hospital privileges at Southlake and is no longer involved with hiring or scheduling processes in the department, Southlake spokesperson Kathryn Perrier said.
Southlake will soon launch an open search-and-selection process for a new emergency department chief.
In a statement posted on Southlake’s website, officials said “when anonymous comments about the working environment in our emergency department surfaced last year, Southlake’s senior leadership team and the board of directors took them seriously”.
“After an internal assessment by Southlake’s chief of staff, Southlake retained Rubin Thomlinson, a law firm specializing in third-party workplace assessments, to conduct an independent review.
“After gathering information about the workplace climate and culture of our emergency department, Rubin Thomlinson recently provided Southlake’s senior leadership team and board of directors with recommendations based on their findings,” the statement said.
The Rubin Thomlinson report made seven recommendations to improve workplace culture, including the creation of a formalized physician application process to remove the possibility of “unconscious bias on the part of the department chief”.
“Based on the feedback we received about there being disproportionate representation in the (emergency) department relating to gender and individuals with certain racial/cultural backgrounds, we also recommend that Southlake specifically consider how to make opportunities within the department known to a more diverse applicant base,” the report said.
Other recommendations included specific suggestions related to boosting equal access to opportunities at Southlake’s emergency department, respectful workplaces, enhanced transparency, equal physician participation in decision-making, the role of Southlake’s relatively new physician navigator position, improved communication, and followup on any new programs or policies the hospital puts in place to ensure accountability.
Regarding the recommendations, Southlake stated that “with the understanding that we can always improve our existing practices and protocols, (we) will use these recommendations to further reinforce constructive interdisciplinary communication, ensure transparent hiring practices, increase management engagement and promote diversity”.
“In the coming months, with the full support of the board of directors, we will launch a number of new initiatives to build on our existing foundation,” the Southlake statement said. “We’re motivated by the opportunity to do everything in our power to ensure that all of us at Southlake are supported so we can all provide the best care to those who count on us.”
Two of those new initiatives include conducting increased awareness and training around Southlake’s whistle-blower policy, and diversity training sessions for all emergency department staff and physicians, to be delivered by Rubin Thomlinson.
"We are committed to carrying out the recommendations of the external workplace review and assessment," Perrier added. "One way we will track our progress is through quarterly surveys with all staff and physicians at Southlake."
"Our goal is to support everyone who works together to provide care for our patients in the emergency department through improved communication. We are also committed to ensuring transparent hiring practices, increasing management engagement and promoting diversity," said Perrier. "Right now, we have two female physicians who are active members of our regular emergency department team roster."
Southlake reports that it has taken a number of actions to date in response to the workplace review of its emergency department, which include:
- A formal interprofessional team has been established to resolve outstanding or ongoing concerns with the physician navigator role;
- Increased opportunities for staff to attend conferences and participate in special initiatives, such as Southlake’s participation in the Kids Health Alliance;
- Additional nursing educator hired with a focus on retention and educational needs beyond orientation;
- Physician-candidate CV review committee established that does not include the chief or deputy chief;
- Minor equipment requested to support care has been purchased;
- Daily verbal updates and huddles, weekly email updates to all staff and physicians;
- Reinforce Southlake’s rules and regulations for both existing and newly appointed physicians in the emergency department;
- Re-engaged patient and family advisory committee, and goals determined;
- York Regional Police and the emergency department have developed a transfer-of-care protocol;
- Extensive weekly email newsletter for all staff;
- Quarterly physician and employee engagement ‘pulse checks’ have been planned for the entire organization, including the emergency department.
To read Southlake’s statement, the Rubin Thomlinson workplace review report, and the actions taken to date and next steps by the hospital, visit here.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include comments from Southlake Regional Health Centre's corporate communications manager, Kathryn Perrier.