CALGARY — Two operators of a private Calgary health centre concede they tried to end-run the booking procedures at a publicly funded cancer-screening clinic, but not to get their patients pushed to the front of the line.
Dr. Doug Caine and business operator Leah Tschritter-Pawluck testified Tuesday that management was so shoddy at Calgary’s Colon Cancer Screening Centre they felt they had to pull strings just to get their patients entered into the database.
“We had a problem and we were trying to find a better way to get (our patients) to be seen efficiently and be put into the system,” Caine, the lead physician at the private Helios Wellness Centre, told the public inquiry into queue-jumping in the Alberta health system.
“We had tried every other mode of communication,” added Tschritter-Pawluck.
The two were called to testify after the inquiry heard testimony last month that Dr. Ron Bridges, a high-ranking University of Calgary academic and physician, and Darlene Pontifex, the office manager at the Colon Cancer Centre, were allegedly co-opting the resources of the publicly funded facility to fast-track Helios patients.
Last month, Calgary gastroenterologist Dr. Jon Love told the inquiry he visited Helios in 2010 and Caine told him Helios was set up to reward deep-pocket donors to the University of Calgary.
On Tuesday, Caine testified he did not recall saying that to Love, but noted that Helios itself — a non-profit organization — was a big contributor to the University of Calgary.
Helios is located two floors down from the CCSC in a building at the Foothills Medical Centre.
Caine and Tschritter-Pawluck said Helios opened just before the CCSC did in January 2008 and provides executive-class private health service, including yoga, diet advice and other amenities. Patients pay $10,000 a year to join.
Tschritter-Pawluck said staff also examine patients and book them for tests. But she said the booking process at CCSC was frustrating from the outset. Many patient files would not be entered into the database for months or they would be missed altogether.
In desperation, she testified, she and Caine decided to bypass the normal booking procedure and email their patient referrals directly to Bridges.
The inquiry has already heard that Bridges, the founder of CCSC and a driving force behind university fundraising, still ran tests at the CCSC but otherwise didn’t have a formal say in operations.
Commission head John Vertes asked Caine if Bridges didn’t have a management role at the CCSC, why go through him?
“What did you expect Dr. Bridges to do?” asked Vertes.
“Good point,” replied Caine. “My thinking was I had a problem and I was trying to find a solution to a problem.”
“I would have thought the solution to the problem was to go to the (CCSC) medical director Dr. (Alaa) Rostom or go to the zone vice-president or somebody else in a position of management authority over the CCSC,” said Vertes.
Caine said to him the natural progression up from a clerk is to a physician, and he knew Bridges.
Bridges and Pontifex are to testify at the inquiry on Wednesday.
Clerks at the CCSC and doctors have testified that from 2008 until the early months of 2012, when the queue-jumping inquiry was called, Helios patients at routine risk for colon cancer were screened within weeks at CCSC while ordinary Albertans were told to wait three years.
CCSC clerks said Helios patient files were given the highest priority and placed in a special file. Once a week, they said, Pontifex would check to make sure they had been booked for speedy service.
They said many of them went through Bridges and they eventually became known around the office as “Dr. Bridges’ private patients.”
They said the files were marked “Helios” and that Helios patients who missed appointments were tracked down and immediately rebooked, while ordinary patients who missed appointments without good reason were pushed to the back of the three-year waiting line.
Many of Caine’s Helios patient files, they said, even listed the time frame in which the patient wished to be treated.
Caine told the inquiry he didn’t know why the referrals would specify a date and added he has no idea how long the overall wait is for routine colon-cancer tests.
Tschritter-Pawluck told the inquiry they sent a gift basket of wine to the CCSC in 2010, but said they did so for all those who work with them, including janitors, mailroom clerks and security guards.
Both said that around March 2012, a month after the queue-jumping inquiry was called, Bridges told them he could no longer book their patients.
Also testifying Tuesday was Dr. Chen Fong, a radiology professor who founded Helios with his own money in 2007.
Fong said Helios was created as a non-profit organization to raise money for fellowships in the medical faculty at the University of Calgary.
Fong said he was not aware of any special relationship between Helios and the CCSC or that Helios patients allegedly got fast-track treatment at CCSC.
“I was very surprised when this thing came up,” said Fong, who said he first learned of it last December.
“I’m totally caught off guard.
“Helios was formed for the sole purpose of funding the fellowship program.”
— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton