SASKATOON -- The Saskatchewan Health Authority is asking physician leaders to leave out sensitive information from department meeting minutes out of fear that it will end up in the media via freedom of information requests.

"If you do not want to see it in the newspaper, then do not include it in the meeting minutes," says a Sept. 24 briefing note to the Area Practitioner Advisory Committee in Regina.

The memo also appears to discourage physicians in positions of authority from speaking to outside agencies and the news media.

The Saskatchewan NDP released the note, which it calls a "hush memo," on Tuesday.

The note cites several "instances of challenging" that did not meet communication standards:

  • The SHA received a freedom of information request for Area Department minutes which contained confidential personal information, the note says. The note does not indicate whether that personal information was redacted, which is typically done under freedom of information legislation.
  • Physician leaders communicated directly with external agencies such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, media, the health ministry and foundations without informing others in the SHA, leading to "discordant messaging," the note says. The note does not provide specific examples.
  • Physicians have used SHA letterhead to write to provincial and federal governments for more resources for their portfolio, the note says. "The SHA has formal mechanisms for prioritizing resource requests from government. Personal advocacy efforts should not use SHA position or resources," the note says.

"Physician leaders need to ensure their colleagues, in both their direct reporting line and cross-functional reporting lines, know and support any external communications," the note says.

‘Additional clarity is required’

In an email to CTV News, spokesperson Amanda Purcell said the intent of the memo was to ensure that any publicly accessible documents follow privacy legislation.

“The intent was also to remind physicians to be clear on whether or not they are speaking on behalf of the SHA or as an individual clinician on behalf of their patients.

“The SHA does not have a policy, nor was there ever any intent, to restrict staff or physicians from exercising their right to free speech.

“We recognize additional clarity is required. We will be working in the following days to ensure staff and physicians are clear on the intent of this memo,” she said.

'Poorly worded'

Health Minister Jim Reiter told reporters he saw the memo for the first time on Tuesday.

"I think it was a poorly worded memo, in places, but having said that, I think the intent, clearly, it's not to muzzle people. The preamble talks about personal information – I think it's talking about personnel records, those sorts of things that shouldn't be public. It's to protect that. There's never been any direction from myself or the premier, anybody in the government, about muzzling doctors.

"Certainly, the opposite is true. I meet with doctors all the time. They advocate. I encourage that. I'm going to continue to do that."

NDP leader Ryan Meili said the timing of the memo suggests it was connected to those raising concerns about problems within emergency rooms in Regina.

"In Regina, the crowding and hallway medicine has been particularly acute," Meili said.

It seemed "very strange" for the SHA to insert itself between communications between doctors and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he said.

"It generally sent a pretty clear message. Don't be out there advocating for your patients in any public way without running it through us first. And I think that is a very dangerous message to be sending to physicians, that they can't advocate on behalf of their patients."