Transparency lacking in patient safety data on suicides across the country
W5 has spent months trying to find out how often patients are able to take their own lives in Canadian hospitals and health facilities.
Annie Burns-Pieper, W5 Associate Producer
Published Friday, October 3, 2014 12:28PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 3, 2014 1:59PM EDT
W5 has spent months trying to find out how often patients are able to take their own lives in Canadian hospitals and health facilities. The conclusion is this has happened hundreds of times in the past ten years.
Through freedom of information requests, W5 requested provincial data to find a national number of suicide deaths by patients in hospitals and health facilities (inpatient suicides). We also wanted to find out in which hospitals these deaths were occurring.
While some provinces were forthcoming, W5 encountered problems with provincial governments not having mechanisms available to track how often patients kill themselves in publicly-funded health facilities. In other cases, there was an unwillingness to mine data available to create these statistics and still other provinces were unwilling to provide information on specific hospitals where these deaths occurred.
W5 spoke to former coroner and nursing instructor Kathleen Stephany who told us the lack of data on this issue prevents steps from being taken to prevent these deaths.
“You don’t make policy changes, you don’t retrain staff, you don’t do anything progressive without the data. The data, the facts are what teaches us how to change things, how to do things differently,” said Stephany.
W5 asked each provincial government for a list of all inpatient suicide deaths, including year and health facility name during the past 10 years. The requests specifically avoided asking for any personal information about the deceased individuals – only the year and place of death.
British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland were the most transparent provinces on this issue. They provided the requested information in full. The territories said they have not had any of these deaths reported.
Saskatchewan was the only province which was not able to provide data on how many inpatient suicide deaths have occurred there in the past decade. The province could only provide a number which combined patient suicides and suicide attempts resulting in serious disability.
Karen Hill, a spokesperson for the Saskatchewan government, said “We do not separate that data in our reports,” and told us it was not possible to go back to case files to find this information.
Alberta responded: “In order to create such a record, the process would have to include creating a new database” and that this would “unreasonably interfere with the operations of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.” The province only ultimately provided the number of inpatient suicide deaths in the province, because the data had been released previously.
A number of provinces refused to provide full information, claiming it could lead to the identification of those who took their own lives while under hospital care.
PEI and Nova Scotia provided the number of deaths by health facility but wouldn’t provide information about the years the suicide deaths occurred, citing, in the case of PEI, “an unreasonable invasion of privacy.” Nova Scotia said the years were withheld in order to “ensure there was no reasonable way to identify the persons involved.”
Ontario, where the majority of deaths occurred, refused to provide the names of hospitals where deaths have occurred, claiming that naming the year and the hospital where the death occurred could “serve to identify individuals, even where they are unnamed in the records.” W5 has appealed the decision.
No central body has been able to provide statistics on how often these deaths occur across the country, including the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) which tracks a wide range of other health statistic information on a national level.