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Damages awarded in health-care bullying case are vindication, but not victory

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Call it vindication. But -- after 14 years, four premiers, three changes of government, the merging of nine regional health authorities into one and a there-must-be-an-end, 33-day trial -- don't call it victory.

On Friday in a landmark decision, a seven-member civil jury awarded Halifax cardiologist Gabrielle Horne $1.4 million in damages, her legal fees and -- most important -- acknowledgement she had been wronged.

When the then-Capital District Health Authority revoked her clinical privileges on October 17, 2002, it not only destroyed a "globally pioneering" heart failure research lab but it also damaged Horne's reputation and career.

At its core, this was a case of workplace bullying at Halifax's Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre. Dr. Ken West, the president of Horne's medical staff association who testified at her trial, summed it up neatly: "she was a junior female investigator being bullied by older male colleagues."

But it was worse, and more than that. Her hospital privileges were varied, without due process, by her boss, the head of the QEII's department of medicine, who happened to be a woman.

For four years, her decision was mindlessly supported by a hospital board that hid behind lawyers to protect the institution's reputation at the expense of the facts and of Dr. Horne -- not only running up millions of dollars in legal fees in the process but also effectively continuing the bullying.

During it all, Dalhousie University, which jointly appointed Horne, and the provincial government, which oversaw Capital Health, looked the other way.

I first wrote about Dr. Horne's case for The Coast in 2006. At each new twist in the tale since, the number of Horne's patients who come forward to offer, unbidden, more glowing testimonials to her professionalism and compassion, is startling -- and telling.

So too is the ongoing attitude of those who should have learned a lesson by now.

After Friday's decision, the now-Nova Scotia Health Authority's chief legal officer issued a statement:

"The events discussed occurred 14 years ago. It's not appropriate for us today to revisit the actions of previous organizations or administrators. We look forward to moving on from this matter with a continued focus on fostering an environment for leading health research and care."

No explanation. No accountability. No apology.

Not good enough.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: paige_eliz/flickr

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