Responding to Complaints at the College of Opticians of Ontario: What Opticians Need to Know
Complaints at the College of Opticians of Ontario (COO) can happen to any optician. Opticians may feel stress at this time, particularly if they are trying to work through the complaint process alone. Based on our experience, we have prepared this guide for opticians responding to complaints at the COO.
The optician is first notified of the complaint against them via a letter from the COO. This letter also encloses the complaint itself and, when applicable, a summary of the optician’s prior complaint history. Once the initial investigation has reached a satisfactory conclusion, a panel of the COO’s Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee (ICRC) is responsible for reviewing the matter and determining how best to address the optician’s conduct. The ICRC, which is composed of both opticians and public members, is entitled to order further investigation if it deems necessary.
Generally, the COO must investigate and act on all complaints against opticians. Regardless of how the optician feels about the quality or validity of the complaint, they typically should prepare a response and cooperate with the demands of the formal complaint process. This may include participating in COO interviews.
Rather than proceeding by way of a hearing, the complaint process operates through exchanging and reviewing the optician and complainant’s documents. Responses are generally in written format only, leaving the optician with no opportunity to directly explain to the ICRC, in person, the decisions they made or the care they provided. As a result, the optician should ensure that they address each of the complainant’s issues prior to submitting their response.
The optician’s response is typically due within 30 days of receiving the COO letter enclosing the complaint. The optician should prioritize writing their response, as it is an essential part of their defence which likely requires time and effort to compile. Along with the professional jeopardy and public exposure threatened by the complaint process in general, the writing process itself can be challenging. Opticians may find it prudent to contact legal counsel who are familiar with professional regulation, as they can assist with working through the complaint process. A retained lawyer typically serves as the first point of contact with the COO, and becomes responsible for submitting the optician’s response and dealing with any subsequent issues.
Any unique elements in the optician’s case, including when the care was provided, the complexity of the care, and the possibility that a civil lawsuit might arise in relation to the care, are worth considering when drafting the response. In our experience, it is likely helpful for the optician to structure their response as a chronology of any events that are relevant to the allegations.
When confronted by a complaint with some merit, the optician might benefit from taking a more conciliatory approach in their response. In the right circumstances, it may be appropriate to demonstrate any efforts the optician has made to correct their shortcomings and improve their practice. An acknowledgment of responsibility may provide the ICRC with confidence that the optician has learned from the experience, which could have a positive impact on the decision.
The optician or, if applicable, their legal representative should typically enclose all relevant records when submitting their finalized response to the COO. As a matter of general practice, the optician is responsible for keeping their records in compliance with the Opticianry Act, 1991 guidelines. Even if the ICRC determines that the optician provided appropriate care, it is still entitled to evaluate the optician’s records and make a negative disposition where their quality is deficient.
Upon receiving the optician’s finalized response, the complaint investigator may decide to investigate further. Eventually, the investigator encloses all of their findings in a report to the ICRC. When it has enough data to inform its decision, the ICRC may do any of the following: take no further action; caution the optician in person before the ICRC; inquire into the optician’s professional capacity; refer the matter to the Discipline Committee; or take any other action that is consistent with the Regulated Health Professions Act. Typically, the optician receives written reasons for any decision, though referrals to discipline or to the Fitness to Practice Committee serve as exceptions.
COO regulatory findings are becoming increasingly transparent. In addition to the possibility of professional consequences, complaints may now result in public scrutiny. The COO’s Public Register features details of the following dispositions: Specified Continuing Education or Remediation Programs (SCERP); oral cautions; and referrals to discipline. Such information is available to anyone viewing the optician’s public profile.
Opticians alleged to have engaged in serious misconduct may be subject to an interim order of the ICRC. Interim orders are limitations, terms, conditions, or restrictions on an optician’s certificate of registration. Designed to address the possibility of ongoing harm, an interim order may rise to the level of licence suspension and has the potential to last for the entirety of the investigation into the optician. Beyond interim orders, section 75 of the Health Professions Procedural Code empowers the Registrar to also appoint a special investigator for these more serious complaints. In contrast to the standard investigation process, a section 75 investigation is much broader in its scope.
Decisions of the ICRC are generally eligible for review before the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (HPARB). Opticians and complainants alike are entitled to request a review. HPARB evaluates whether the COO’s investigation was adequate and whether the ICRC’s decision was reasonable. A package containing essentially all the documents and information obtained during the COO’s investigation is provided to the HPARB panel, the optician, and the complainant.
Dealing with a complaint at the COO can be a stressful experience for any optician. Writing a quality response has the potential to make a difference when defending against allegations of professional misconduct, and opticians should consider retaining specialized legal counsel who can assist with the complaint process as a whole. Each complaint merits serious consideration, as a negative disposition may effect an optician’s career.
Josh Koziebrocki, is the principal lawyer and founder of Koziebrocki Law. He represents opticians and has extensive experience dealing with regulatory issues. He can be reached at 416-925-5445.
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