MANITOULIN – Little Current resident Robin Omnet-Schachinger is one of a growing list of people who have joined a class action against Health Sciences North (HSN) in Sudbury in response to alleged errors in the hospital’s breast imaging program.
Ms. Omnet-Schachinger, of Little Current, lived with breast cancer but has been in remission since treatments in 2018. At the time, she was living in Kitchener, where she got the treatment. However, since moving back up to the Island that year, she has had two follow-up mammograms at HSN. Now, she says she does not feel comfortable returning to the Sudbury hospital for further screenings.
“I’ve been told so far that everything was negative, which is great, but after this story came out I’ve just been skeptical about going back there. I’ve made an appointment in Kitchener, where I’m going to get my next mammogram,” she said.
On December 14, 2020, Gluckstein Lawyers of Toronto began a $22 million class action against HSN and its senior administration in response to allegations of long-standing issues in breast imaging at the Sudbury hospital. Its claim is that the technicians performing the imaging missed numerous cancerous growths and often misread the imaging data in a period between 2008 and 2020.
The outcome of this, says the statement of claim, has been missed opportunities for patients to get quick treatment to combat the virus at earlier, more-treatable stages, which could potentially lead to negative health outcomes.
Further, the lawsuit claims that the hospital management was told several times about potential issues in the breast imaging department but did not make major progress toward quality improvement. It alleges that those who tried to raise the issues were “subject to bullying and other punitive action.”
This included an internal 2018 letter in which HSN surgeons warned of an “overwhelming decline below the standard of care for contemporary breast imaging,” and this was making it difficult to appropriately treat their patients.
The above allegations have not yet been tested in court.
“(HSN) would like to reiterate its dedication to providing high quality patient care for families of Northeastern Ontario. While HSN is unable to comment on this matter as it is before the courts, we want to underscore our commitment to quality and timeliness of care,” it said in a statement. “HSN strives to uphold stringent standards and best practices to ensure patients receive the best quality care.”
The hospital added that it has expanded its roster of additionally-credentialed radiologists that have medical privileges at the hospital, and continues to strengthen its quality assurance programs to ensure it is providing the highest in patient care.
HSN performs thousands of mammograms annually; the statement of claim cites more than 5,000 in the 2017-2018 period.
Ms. Omnet-Schachinger describes herself as an advocate for people to take an active role in their health care and said people who have had breast imaging done at HSN should be diligent in their follow-ups.
“You might want to ask to see the report yourself to see what was said. Apparently on some of the exams, they produced really grainy images that were difficult to see but the patients were not told that. When they went to the doctor they were just told it was negative. We have the right to see our medical record,” she said.
This is a personal issue for the 53-year-old. Her younger sister went for precautionary screening at HSN when Ms. Omnet-Schachinger got her diagnosis, and her sister is now concerned about the accuracy of her own results.
Ms. Omnet-Schachinger encouraged people who have had breast imaging at HSN between 2008 and 2020 to contact Gluckstein Lawyers to learn more and decide whether they want to join the suit. Ultimately, she said she hopes this process will drive accountability and change-making into the future.
“I don’t know if they have to update their equipment or the way the mammograms are interpreted; I don’t know what the actual problem is, but I’d like to see something done at the higher level. Those in leadership roles at HSN were aware of the issues with the poor-quality breast imaging but did little, according to the class action suit,” Ms. Omnet-Schachinger said. “An apology would be nice.”
For Kagawong’s Mary Buie, who is continuing to write about her cancer journey in the pages of this newspaper after her cancer returned in recent months, the news of this lawsuit came as a shock.
“It was a bombshell to me because I never experienced anything like that at all over there in any of the departments. I felt extremely sad to read those allegations that the staff knew there was something wrong and couldn’t get anywhere, but I never saw any evidence of that at all,” she told The Expositor.
Ms. Buie had a mammogram at HSN in 2009 and then a two-year follow-up in 2011, when technicians found she had dense breast tissue. This moved her to an annual check-up schedule but just before her 2012 appointment, she found a large tumour in her breast.
She got an ultrasound in Mindemoya on a Wednesday, then had an appointment at HSN one week later for a mammogram, breast ultrasound and two needle biopsies. Three days later, she received a confirmed cancer diagnosis and within weeks was speaking with the surgeon to discuss removing the tumour.
Ms. Buie, who keeps a daily journal and was able to confirm the dates in her notes, said all of her experiences were professional, fast and effective. During a five-week span of daily visits for radiation, she said she did not notice any friction between the workers and management.
When she had another suspicious item in her imaging this January, she said the process was likewise quick and effective.
Despite her own positive experiences, she did not discount the claims in the lawsuit and said interpreting medical imaging can be notoriously challenging, so perhaps that may be where the problem lay. Ms. Buie is a retired nurse and midwife.
She praised the hospital for its investments in cancer care, such as building a positron emission tomography (PET) scan suite in 2019, one of two such facilities in Northern Ontario (the other being in Thunder Bay).
The lead plaintiff is former HSN patient Shannon Hayes, who now lives in London, UK. She had a breast cancer screening on a lump in 2018 which raised no issues, but at a follow-up appointment after moving overseas the next year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer that had become metastatic; that is, it had spread to other parts of her body.
Eligible plaintiffs are those who had breast imaging at HSN between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2020, or the personal representative of the estate if deceased. All living parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings and spouses, including a personal representative of such family members that have died, are also eligible to apply through Gluckstein Lawyers.