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Protocol for drug dependent health-care professionals a positive step

Ontario nursing professionals now have a confidential and secure way to address their drug and alcohol problems, Toronto health lawyer Lonny Rosen tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“The issue until now was that nurses who had health issues had difficulty accessing resources needed for treatment and would also have difficulty engaging in treatment programs that were acceptable to the College,” says Rosen, partner with Rosen Sunshine LLP.

The Nurses’ Health Program — developed by the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO), Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario (RPNAO), the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) — addresses the issue, he says.

“This is a positive step forward. Many of the cases before the Discipline Committee of the CNO involve drug and alcohol problems,” says Rosen, a Law Society of Ontario-certified health law specialist.

One of the biggest issues for nurses is their relatively easy access to narcotics on the job, he says.

“Nurses have to deal with their stressful practice and a crushing workload, and for someone with an addiction or illness, the temptation is sometimes too difficult to resist,” Rosen says.

“Regulators, meanwhile, have a duty to protect the public. So, when a health-care professional is caught diverting drugs from patients, stealing them, or making a mistake on the job, the consequences are severe.”

Rosen says that until recently, there was no middle ground, leaving many health-care professionals reluctant to come forward for fear of losing their licence.

The new voluntary, bilingual protocol allows them to seek help as they would for any other illness  — with the assurance the matter will remain confidential.

“Nurses who engage with this program may take a leave from practice and then return, or simply carry on practising with supports in place. These supports can benefit both the nurse and the employer, because an experienced professional may determine whether the health-care worker is sticking to the program and whether they are capable of practising their profession,” Rosen says. “But, it stays private. It’s designed to be a voluntary program so they can come forward earlier and more easily.”

He says the program also allows for a sidetrack option for a nurse facing a complaint or allegation fueled by an illness or addiction.

“With the help of legal counsel, the nurse can potentially avoid discipline proceedings by having the case directed to the CNO’s Fitness to Practise (FTP) process,” Rosen says. “This is used when a nurse’s physical or mental health is affecting their ability to do their job safely. If needed, the CNO can restrict a nurse’s ability to practise or have them surrender their certificate of registration until certain conditions are fulfilled. Unlike discipline, this is a confidential process that is not intended to be punitive, but supportive — albeit with the overarching goal of the CNO’s public protection mandate.”

The new program is modelled after a similar protocol for physicians and will help nursing professions return to work while fast-tracking access to resources needed to address addiction and dependence issues, he says, adding it benefits both professionals and the health-care system.

“Experienced nurses are difficult to replace,” Rosen says. “It makes more sense for everybody to rehabilitate the fully qualified health-care professional, and get them back on the job."

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