10/28/2011 02:57 EDT | Updated 12/28/2011 05:12 EST

Alberta health minister says new bylaws will help doctors speak up without fear

EDMONTON - Changes underway in Alberta's Health Department will go a long way to getting doctors to speak up about patient care without fear of retribution, the province's health minister said Friday.

Fred Horne said administrators are implementing new bylaws and codes of conduct to encourage physicians to advocate for patients. The new rules clarify the complaint process and make it clear that physician intimidation will not be tolerated.

"That's very much in line with where we need to be," Horne said in an interview.

"As minister I'll be looking at whatever I can do to support that."

It's not just doctors affected, he said. "It's nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals as well."

Horne was responding to the interim findings released Thursday by the Health Quality Council of Alberta.

Dr. John Cowell, the head of the arm's-length investigatory body, reported that there is a pattern of physician abuse, stemming mainly from a lack of knowledge or organizational rules to deal with the concerns in a healthy way.

Instead, said Cowell, doctors are being ostracized by peers for speaking out or, worse, losing contracts for work or hospital privileges without due process.

Dr. Chris Eagle, the head of Alberta Health Services, responded by saying they're taking steps on many fronts to address Cowell's findings.

Along with the new rules, Eagle said a team of senior physicians is looking at other avenues, such as a hotline for physicians to report abuse or suggest ways to improve the system.

Alberta Health Services carries out the front-line care on behalf of Alberta Health.

Horne also noted he was pleased to see there's no evidence from Cowell to support allegations from Opposition Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman that years earlier 250 patients died needlessly awaiting surgery for lung cancer in Edmonton, and that doctors were bribed or coerced to keep it quiet.

Sherman, himself an emergency room doctor, levelled those allegations in February. He said he's not surprised Cowell did not find any evidence because the doctors who can testify to what really happened are either under court-imposed gag orders or don't trust that the Quality Council can shield them from retribution.

Horne said he can't speak to how the investigation was carried out.

"This was set up so the Health Quality Council could conduct their inquiry independently," said Horne. "I don't know who they talked to or didn't talk to. I'm not privy to that information, nor should I be," he said.

Horne said the government's push to return more decision making to the regions should also lessen the complaints as local administrators will be able to resolve problems before they escalate into intractable standoffs.

The Health Quality Council was called in earlier this year by the government to deal with mounting allegations of problems in the health system.

Along with allegations of doctor intimidation, there have been reports that some politicians are letting family and friends jump the queue for care. Doctors have also reported major overcrowding problems in emergency wards, something that Cowell confirmed and the government is already taking steps to address.

The opposition has said only an independent, judge-led inquiry with subpoena powers can get to the bottom of the affair, given that some of the complaints involve government ministers and officials.

Premier Alison Redford promised earlier this year to hold such an inquiry, but backed away from that this week. Redford now says giving more independence and investigatory power to the Health Quality Council might suffice.

Horne said ultimately he wants an investigation that Albertans can put their trust in.

"There are a couple of things that are key from my point of view. One is that the proceedings be in public, and the second thing is the group doing the inquiry have the power to compel evidence and subpoena witnesses," he said.

"The process we eventually decide on needs to include both those features."

Horne said he won't be turning his attention to that inquiry until after the Health Quality Council delivers its final report and recommendations in February.