Code of conduct a gag

Every business, profession or public service — and all the workers within them — operate under codes of conduct.

Every business, profession or public service — and all the workers within them — operate under codes of conduct. Larger businesses, professional associations and even non-profits have written documents that spell out the ethical guidelines to which everyone in the organization must adhere.

When that organization is Alberta Health Services, the need for a written Code of Conduct is self-evident. Every professional group that works under AHS — doctors, nurses, lab techs, pharmacists — has their own codes of conduct, specific to each profession.

The codes are layers of security to help us trust that these workers will use their skills in the public interest. But what happens when the public interest clashes with some practices of AHS?

You can easily see why AHS would rather not have to deal with hospital workers in one place or another griping publicly about staffing levels or working conditions.

Every boss would like the power to stifle public complaints from employees.

That’s why their recently-released code warns all health-care workers to “exercise caution at all times and choose your words carefully when engaging in any form of public speaking.”

A breach of this rule includes “engaging in conduct that may adversely affect Alberta Health Services or its reputation.”

“Inappropriate acts,” says the code, can lead to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

That’s casting way too wide a net over the right of people to express their opinions in a free society. People who have made caring for others their life’s work are being told to stay quiet if they believe certain practices of AHS may be harming patient care.

Moreover, the code includes methods by which workers can anonymously report on each other to AHS. Now, even an overheard slice from a conversation can anonymously be used to mark someone’s career.

And now, we discover, this code includes hospital volunteers, like Sonia Francis of Red Deer, who had worked for many years as a nurse both in the United Kingdom and in Canada. What has been her role recently? Knitting items for patients at the hospital.

She was sent a copy of the Code of Conduct and a cover letter that opened with “Dear Volunteers.”

She received it as an insult, as she should have, and she promptly resigned as a volunteer.

The senior citizen who had never written a letter to the editor in her life felt compelled to publicly express her outrage at what she took as an affront to her integrity.

Sonia Francis would probably never publicly dispute the AHS denial that there is a hiring freeze on nurses, even though hospitals are desperately short-staffed and cannot hire even relief staff. But she will not give up the right to do so — even if it means she can no longer knit baby caps for the neonatal care ward.

Hospital workers in Red Deer and other centres are also beginning to speak out against what is obviously a gag order meant to shut down the flow of information about declining care levels in our health system. They are front-line workers, putting a lot more on the line than a position as a volunteer knitter.

If you were asked to judge, which standard would you rather use: the codes of conduct of the professional associations, or the AHS code, which puts Alberta Health Services’ reputation above good patient care?

— Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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