POLITICS

Doctor who ran Calgary clinic that allowed queue-jumping has left province: AHS

10/18/2013 06:27 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
CALGARY - The doctor who ran a Calgary colon cancer screening clinic that allowed select patients to jump the queue has left the province.

Alberta Health Services, in a report released Friday, said Dr. Alaa Rostom, the former head of the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, "has left the program for another position outside Alberta."

The announcement came in a review of the Colon Cancer Screening Centre undertaken after evidence was presented earlier this year to a provincial queue-jumping inquiry that patients from the private Helios Wellness Centre were being seen and treated within weeks at the publicly funded clinic while everyone else waited years.

Testimony presented earlier this year to Justice John Vertes, who ran the provincial inquiry, showed that patients from Helios were fast-tracked from the time the clinic opened in 2008 until Premier Alison Redford asked Vertes to undertake his inquiry in early 2012.

Vertes, in his final report delivered in August, said the evidence convinced him that systemic queue-jumping was taking place at the clinic, known as CCSC for short.

The AHS, in its report, agreed.

"During the course of this external review it became apparent that improper preferential access had occurred in the CCSC," stated the AHS report.

Alberta Health Services noted that some of the early problems may have been the result of clerical confusion as the CCSC got going.

"However, even after these issues were remedied, improper preferential access continued until 2012 for patients of a particular physician and for patients who were associated with the Helios Wellness Centre," said the report.

Dr. Ron Bridges, a gastroenterologist and the founder of the CCSC, was cited by Vertes as a doctor whose patients referrals were allowed to jump the queue at CCSC.

Bridges, an associate dean of medicine at the University of Calgary, conceded at the inquiry that he booked his patients outside the normal routine, but didn't realize that would result in them being bumped up in line.

Alberta Health Services said it found that Rostom, a former protege of Bridges, worked closely with him at CCSC and, along with his medical duties, took a hands-on role on everything from hiring and firing to equipment purchasing and computer issues.

"The degree to which he (Rostom) was involved is unusual in the opinion of the reviewers and makes it difficult to understand why he would not have known about the preferential access that was occurring."

In his testimony to the Vertes inquiry in January, Rostom said he was unaware of the queue-jumping, but said if it took place, it was the fault of booking clerks going rogue.

"It's inappropriate for the clerks to change (treatment) priority based on anything other than the priority of the patient," he testified.

Three Forzani clerks testified that Rostom was one of three doctors who were seeing patients on a fast-tracked basis.

Rostom ran the medical side of the clinic while Darlene Pontifex ran the administrative side.

At the Vertes inquiry, Pontifex admitted that the queue-jumping occurred with Helios patients in the early days of the clinic because the clerical system was in such disarray, they were scrambling to fill testing slots.

However, as time wore on and a formal booking system was put in place, the inquiry heard testimony that Bridges' patients continued to circumvent the lineup up by emailing Pontifex directly.

Pontifex testified that she didn't remember seeing the emails, telling Vertes, "I receive a lot of emails. I don't necessarily read them."

The report states Pontifex, now on administrative leave, was coping with a difficult situation with no formal training.

"This was her first management role and there were significant operational challenges within the clinic in the first few years of operation," said the report.

The report indicated that recent spot audits at the clinic have not turned up any queue-jumping.

Alberta Health Services says it is looking at initiatives to prevent a recurrence of queue-jumping, including spot audits and reinforcing to staff they have the right to report malfeasance without fear of repercussions.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton