I have been defending professionals, including dental hygienists, facing complaints for over 25 years. Often clients will say – if I just explain that I didn’t do it, won’t this complaint go away?
Unfortunately – if the complaint raises serious issues – no.
The complaint process set out in the Regulated Health Professions Act is the same for all health professionals, including dental hygienists. Other legislation – like the Ontario College of Teachers Act or the Veterinarians Act establishes a similar two-step process.
Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee at the CDHO
First, there is a committee that receives and reviews the complaints. The “complaints committee” (called the Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee – or ICRC - at health Colleges like the CDHO) review paper: complaints, written responses, reports of investigators, etc. They do not hear from live witnesses and are not permitted to make “credibility assessments” – ie., determine who is more or less credible or believable.
The function of this committee is a “screening” function. The question they answer is: If true, are the allegations serious enough that they should be referred to the Discipline Committee? If the answer to that is “yes”, the dental hygienist will be referred to the Discipline Committee for a hearing.
There is a secondary inquiry – whether there is a reasonable prospect that the concerns raised in the complaint could be proven at a discipline hearing. However, because the ICRC does not hear from live witnesses and does not make determinations of “credibility”, as long as there is some admissible evidence the ICRC will usually refer the matter to the Discipline Committee.
During the Investigation
The scope of the investigation varies, depending on the situation. An investigator may be appointed, who may interview the complainant, witnesses, and finally the dental hygienist.
Strategic considerations about how to handle the investigation phase are different with every case, and it is important to work with a lawyer who is experienced and can explain the options, risks, and likely outcomes.
A dental hygienist is not entitled to as many procedural protections during the investigation phase and clients are often surprised by the breadth of the investigatory powers of the CDHO.
What Does a Referral to Discipline Mean?
Because the ICRC of the CDHO simply considers whether the allegations – if true – are serious, a dental hygienist can be referred to the Discipline Committee even if he or she did not commit the act of professional misconduct alleged.
A referral does not mean that the CDHO believes the complainant. It does not mean that the dental hygienist has “lost” some determination. It simply means that the allegations are serious and there is some admissible evidence to prove them.
When a referral is made to discipline, the CDHO issues a “Notice of Hearing”. The Notice of Hearing sets out the allegations of professional misconduct against the dental hygienist as set out in the professional misconduct regulation under the Dental Hygiene Act, 1991.
That Notice of Hearing must be posted on the website of the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario, often on a page listing upcoming hearings and also with the dental hygienist’s name on the Public Register.
Next Step: Formal Hearing
There will then be a formal hearing – either contested or uncontested – at which a panel of the Discipline Committee of the CDHO will hear from live witnesses (if contested) or consider an Agreed Statement of Facts (if uncontested). Ultimately, the panel will decide what if any findings of professional misconduct to make against the dental hygienist.
Although the steps of the process are the same, the strategic plan to guide the dental hygienist through the process is unique to every situation. A blog or general explanation as set out above is no substitute for legal advice, specific to your case.
At Wise Health Law, we have the expertise and experience to guide you through your interactions with the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario. Every step is strategic, and it is important to retain counsel early. We will explain your options and assist you in planning, whatever option you choose and however serious the possible outcome. We will make sure you feel supported and will fight for you.