Responding to Complaints at the College of Optometrists of Ontario: What Optometrists Need to Know

Any optometrist may become subject to a complaint. Regulatory proceedings can result in professional consequences, and are understandably stressful. To assist, we have prepared this basic guide for responding to complaints at the College of Optometrists of Ontario.

Optometrists who are subject to a formal complaint will typically receive the following from the College of Optometrists of Ontario: notification of the complaint, a copy of the complaint, and their prior complaint history, if applicable. Upon the conclusion of the complaint investigation, a panel of the Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee (“ICRC”) will decide on the matter. The ICRC is comprised of both optometrists and government appointed public members.

Whether or not optometrists consider allegations against them to be legitimate, the College of Optometrists of Ontario is generally required to address all formal complaints. Investigators may request interviews with optometrists. Failing to comply with this or any other requirement may result in professional discipline. 

Optometrists should typically prepare a response. Formal complaints proceed by way of documentary exchange and review, which means that the response must be made in writing. As hearings will not be held, optometrists will generally not be able to supply an in-person explanation of the care they provided, so their written response should be comprehensive.

Optometrists will typically have 30 days to provide their response to the College of Optometrists of Ontario. While it may be time consuming and challenging to prepare the response, retaining a lawyer who is experienced with professional regulation may be of assistance to optometrists. Once retained, legal counsel will typically become the main point of contact with the College of Optometrists of Ontario, and will submit the response and deal with any other issues.

In drafting their response, optometrists should consider any unique factors in their case, including when they provided care, the complexity of care, and the possibility of a civil lawsuit. In our experience, it is often useful to provide a chronological account of the event.

Optometrists should enclose any relevant patient records and materials with their response to the College of Optometrists of Ontario. The ICRC can evaluate an optometrist’s records at any time, and can make a negative disposition on the basis of inadequate recordkeeping. Optometrists should always keep their records in compliance with the guidelines of the Optometry Act, 1991. 

Following the conclusion of the investigation, the ICRC will receive and review the optometrist’s complaint file, and may make any of the following dispositions: 

  • Take no further action; 
  • Caution an optometrist in person before the ICRC; 
  • Inquire into an optometrist’s professional capacity; 
  • Refer the matter to the Discipline Committee; or 
  • Make any other appropriate action, including ordering further investigation. 

The ICRC will typically provide optometrists with written reasons for its decisions. Optometrists will not receive written reasons if they are referred to discipline or to another panel of the ICRC for incapacity proceedings.

The College of Optometrists of Ontario is required to post details of the following ICRC dispositions on the Public Register: Specified Continuing Education or Remediation Programs (“SCERP”); cautions; undertakings; and referrals to discipline. This information will be available to anyone accessing the optometrist’s online profile. 

In serious cases where an optometrist’s alleged conduct exposes or is likely to expose patients to harm or injury, the ICRC may impose an interim order. Interim orders are imposed prior to final dispositions, and can last for the entirety of the formal complaint process. Interim orders can take the form of terms, limitations, or conditions on an optometrist’s certificate of registration, including licence suspension. The Registrar may also appoint a special investigator to investigate serious complaints against optometrists. Under section 75 of the Health Professions Procedural Code, this investigator has much broader powers than in the standard complaint process.

Optometrists and complainants are both entitled to request a review of the ICRC’s decision. Reviews take place before the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (“HPARB”), which will consider whether the College of Optometrists of Ontario’s investigation was adequate and whether the ICRC’s decision was reasonable. A review at HPARB will be based on the documents and materials that were available to the ICRC. HPARB will typically provide these materials to optometrists and complainants prior to the date of the review.

Responding to a formal complaint at the College of Optometrists of Ontario can be difficult, but legal counsel can assist optometrists throughout this process. As complaints have the potential to result in professional consequences, it is prudent for optometrists to seriously consider their options.