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Canadian health ministry faces criticism for its secrecy

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7450.1222-f (Published 20 May 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1222
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott
  1. Calgary

    According to the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canada's federal health ministry, Health Canada, is the most secretive government department in Canada. On 9 May the association awarded Health Canada its fourth annual “code of silence” award for showing “remarkable zeal in suppressing information” and “concealing vital data about dangerous drugs.”

    “Government officials everywhere hide vital information that they think might embarrass them, their departments, or their political leaders,” said the association's president, Paul Schneidereit. The code of silence award honours government officials' efforts to “shroud open government.”

    According to the association, over a period of more than five years Health Canada denied journalists or members of the public any “meaningful” access to a database of prescription drugs that were harmful or potentially fatal.

    It refused to release information on adverse drug reactions in a format that would allow researchers to study the records electronically. The researchers wished to spot trends and identify which drugs might cause problems. For more than five years Health Canada would release the information only in a computerised format that prevented deeper analysis.

    In the United States, by contrast, the Food and Drug Administration routinely makes this kind of data on adverse drug reactions readily available on its website, said Mr Schneidereit.

    Canada's all party parliamentary standing committee on health eventually criticised Health Canada for failing effectively to protect Canadians who take prescription drugs, he reported. The committee concluded that the way in which drugs were tested and approved in Canada was too secretive, in large part because of concerns about the commercial interests of drug companies. Health Canada finally relented more than five years after it was challenged.

    One of Canada's provincial health departments, the New Brunswick Department of Health and Wellness, was also a finalist for the code of silence award. For more than a year the provincial health ministry “stonewalled” various requests that it make public information from two studies concerning healthcare resources.

    The ministry finally released the two reports in response to a public outcry over the provincial health minister's comments on this issue and pending an ombudsman's ruling.

    The Canadian Association of Journalists, which has 1300 members across Canada, announced that Health Canada had won its award at the association's national conference in Vancouver earlier this month. Health Canada did not send a representative to accept the award, a plaque featuring a padlock and chains.

    Health Canada's health products and food branch has been looking at the need for increased openness and transparency in its operations. For instance, the branch recently commissioned a survey of 1500 Canadian consumers and 551 health professionals on the effectiveness of Health Canada's methods for communicating information on the safety of health products.

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