Health care professionals have a responsibility to their profession and community

To the Expositor:

For 15 years from 1989-2004, the people of Temiskaming in Northeastern Ontario opposed the development of a mega dump and related toxic waste disposal processing complex that was slated to be built in the headwaters of the Ottawa River and Lake Temiskaming. The plan was supported at first by many politicians, municipal councilors, provincial MPs, federal MPPs and by the provincial government of Mike Harris, who gave the green light to the dump. Many prominent local residents were known investors in the project; many municipalities were promised a share in revenues or perks to become “willing hosts” for southern Ontario garbage and toxic waste from across North America and beyond. The councillors who voted for these perks claimed that they were doing the best thing for the community.

On the other hand, citizens of all stripes and walks of life banded together, spending collectively millions of hours of hard work, donating money and time to peaceful opposition. Many members of regulated health care professions joined in the opposition. They too worked hard, raised funds, organized scientific and medical seminars on hydrology, environmentally responsible waste management, the science of incineration, the dangers of PCBs and dioxins in the food chain. Through their hard work, fundraising and donations they and the community brought in independently recognized world experts in these fields to educate themselves, the general population and even those who were supporting the plan. They spent many hours talking with municipal leaders and politicians who would listen; many notable persons changed their views through reasoned persuasion.

Not everyone was open to listening. In Kirkland Lake the entire hospital board including the CEO and Chief of Staff were pro the mega toxic garbage dump plan. They punished doctors who spoke out against the project by withdrawing hospital privileges or imposing punitive restrictions on their practices, assigning grueling schedules and denying office spaces. All regulated health care professionals involved in the opposition to the plan lost time, income, and precious peaceful family life as part of their passionate commitment to the community and to the water and soil of the district.

Not once in the fervor of their cause did any member of a regulated healthcare profession, whether physician, surgeon, nurse, respiratory technician, lab or xray technician, dentist, pharmacists, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, chiropractor, optometrist, psychologist, psychotherapist, massage therapist, or counselor refuse treatment or service to any person who was known to have supported the plan or to have voted for the plan. They fired not even one patient for political reasons. Each of these health care providers had their principles straight. They kept their social, political and environmental zeal out of their practices. With their environmental principles they fought the fight outside of the office. With their professional principles and ethics they treated all their patients with respect and dignity.

Eventually after 15 years of hard work the mega dump and toxic processing plans were stopped. The investors and supporters lost. The garbage dump and toxic waste processing plants were cancelled, even though they had Certificates of Approval from the Ministry of the Environment.

What happened to the community that had been so divided? Amazingly, it healed very quickly. Former enemies learned to work and live together with respect. The fundamental social contract had not been broken by the opponents of the dump and waste plan. The regulated health care professionals involved had maintained all of their principles.

Members of regulated health care professions are in a position of privilege. Especially those who are entitled to add “Doctor” to their name exercise enormous social persuasion and power. Their credentials add considerably to their authority and to their economic advantages. But certification and registration is also a privilege in another sense: it brings with it enormous responsibilities. Regulated health care professionals are seen as role models in the community. If they model truly ethical and responsible behaviour and principles they can engage in social and political actions fairly and respectfully. All health care professionals whether politically engaged or not, have a primary responsibility to their profession, to their community and to their patients. That is what it means to be principled.

Brenda Gold