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Whistleblower Complaint by Five Edmonton Surgeons Dismissed

After 17 months, Alberta Health Services tersely rules allegations including conflict of interest to be ‘unfounded.’

Charles Rusnell 5 Apr 2024The Tyee

Charles Rusnell is an independent investigative reporter based in Edmonton.

Alberta Health Services has dismissed conflict of interest and other allegations made through a formal whistleblower complaint by five Edmonton surgeons against their AHS manager.

The surgeons had alleged Dr. Daniel O’Connell, the head of the ear, nose and throat section in Edmonton, had used his position to benefit a private clinic, of which he owns a five per cent share.

After a 17-month internal investigation, AHS associate chief medical officer Dr. Sharron Spicer told the surgeons in a tersely worded April 3 email that their “concern was dismissed as unfounded.” Spicer provided no further information.

“This should give nobody any confidence that this was a proper investigation,” University of Alberta law professor Cameron Hutchison said after reviewing Spicer’s email.

“There is nothing here, it is really pathetic,” said Hutchison, an expert in whistleblower legislation. “There is no transparency, and therefore no accountability.”

In her email, Spicer told the surgeons only that the leadership in the Edmonton zone had been notified of the investigation’s conclusion and “any actions required will be addressed at the zone level.”

The surgeons — Hamdy El-Hakim, Jeffrey Harris, Hadi Seikaly, Erin Wright and Daniel O’Brien — either declined or did not respond to an interview request.

AHS declined an interview request and instead issued a statement that did not address any of the issues raised by The Tyee's reporting, including why O'Connell was promoted while he was apparently under investigation and why the investigation took more than a year longer than AHS policy prescribed.

The surgeons filed their complaint in November 2022 against O’Connell, who had been serving as the interim head of the ENT section for Edmonton. The Tyee obtained a copy of the complaint after AHS appointed O’Connell permanently to the job in late December 2023.

In addition to the whistleblowers’ allegation that O’Connell was using his position to benefit the Canadian Cancer Care clinic, they also alleged he arbitrarily reduced the operating time for some of the surgeons and blocked the hiring of a talented young surgeon and academic, Dr. Daniel O’Brien.

O’Brien had been chosen by a committee to fill an academic surgeon’s position in Edmonton. But O’Connell directly intervened and O’Brien was never hired. O’Brien said AHS has refused to tell him why he wasn’t hired, or when he might be hired.

AHS did not respond to a recent request from The Tyee for an explanation of why it refused to provide O’Brien with any information about what happened to the job he was offered.

O’Brien and his wife, University of Alberta doctoral student Andrea Dekeseredy, moved with their young son to Omaha, Nebraska, but they plan to move back to Canada as soon as O’Brien can find a job.

The owners of the private Canadian Cancer Care clinic challenged the allegations made by the surgeons and in a cease-and-desist letter threatened to sue.

None of the allegations in either the whistleblower complaint or the cease-and-desist letter have been proven.

In February, O’Connell effectively fired one of his accusers, Dr. Jeffrey Harris, from a key administrative position at the University of Alberta Hospital, the main ear, nose and throat surgical facility for northern Alberta.

Spicer, in her email dismissing the surgeons’ allegations, thanked them for bringing forward their allegations.

“It is important that all workers contribute to the common goal of working within a safe, respectful and caring work environment.”

Hutchison, the whistleblower expert, scoffed at Spicer’s statement that such complaints are welcomed. He said the authority’s handling of the complaint exemplifies poor management and how not to treat whistleblowers.

“Obviously, good management practice is to discuss the workplace concern directly with the people involved, explain in advance that you have reached the decision and why you have reached that decision,” he said.

Through its secretive handling of this case, AHS has sent a clear message to any employees considering making a whistleblower complaint, he said.

“Don’t waste your time,” Hutchison said. “And, if you do speak up about wrongdoing in the workplace, you run the risk of reprisal without any intervention or help from this law.”

If you have any information for this story, or information for another story, please contact Charles Rusnell in confidence via email.  [Tyee]

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