Access to hospital info

QUESTION: Is a hospital a public institution, subject to access to information requests if they are not related to specific patient information?

Answer by Robert Cribb

Remarkably, hospitals in Ontario are indeed not covered by provincial freedom of information legislation. It’s been a long standing source of frustration that such vital public institutions, funded with billions of dollars in public money and providing an essential public service, are not subject to the one piece of legislation designed to ensure the public’s right to know.

I asked Bob Spence, Communications Co-ordinator at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, for insight into the issue. “The IPC pushed for years to have both hospitals and universities covered under FOI,” he said. “Universities were added in 2006 and we are still pushing for hospitals.”

He also noted that it’s not the IPC’s job to change the law. “The Information and Privacy Commissioner is independent of the government of the day — and has the legislated authority to (among other things) overturn decisions made by government organizations re FOI requests when those decisions do not follow the legislation. But this office doesn’t get to ennact laws or amend them.”

The provincial government has offered no cogent explanation for such an oversight. The shroud of secrecy surrounding hospitals in Ontario isn’t simply limited to exclusion from FOI legislation. Last year, the Ontario government received a nomination for the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence Award — recognizing the most secretive government departments in Canada — for refusing to give the provincial ombudsman power to investigate hospitals. Ontario is the only province where the provincial ombudsman can provide no scrutiny over one of our most costly and vital public institutions.

As it stands, journalists, citizens and researchers are left with few options when it comes to investigating hospitals. Court records, in cases where formal proceedings have been launched against a hospital or a physician with hospital privledges, are one way reporters have been able to peek inside the operation of hospitals. In a recent series of stories on Toronto gynecologist Dr. Richard Austin, the Toronto Star was able to document the physician’s high complication rates and growing internal concerns among hospital officials about his care of patients entirely through records filed in court as a result of lawsuits filed by patients.

Robert Cribb is an award-winning investigative reporter at the Toronto Star and co-author of Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide.