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Doctor at heart of Alberta queue-jump allegation to take stand

Calgary doctor Ron Bridges, cited by his peers as possibly being behind a queue-jumping scheme at a colon cancer-screening clinic, will get a chance to tell his side of the story at a public inquiry in Alberta this week.

But he has already, at least once, made his feelings known on the issue of preferential access.

"People are triaged on the basis of risk," Dr. Bridges wrote in letter to the Calgary Herald to clarify some points on a news story nearly two years ago.

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"Those who have no significant risks for colorectal cancer are accommodated for colonosocpy screening as resources allow.

"Talk to your doctor and get screened regularly. It could save your life."

The letter was dated May 27, 2011, the same time that doctors and staff at the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre have testified Dr. Bridges was possibly at the centre of a scheme to reward deep-pocket donors of the University of Calgary by moving them to the front of the line for routine testing.

Witnesses told Alberta's Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry last month that while all other patients waited three years or more for help at the publicly funded clinic, the favoured few were being seen and treated in a matter of months, sometimes weeks.

The man at the centre of it, they allege, was Dr. Bridges, the senior associate dean of faculty affairs at the University of Calgary and the man in charge of the faculty's fund-development programs.

He is a man who, in the last decade, has forged a résumé of distinguished public service while serving at the highest levels in his field and mentoring many grateful and distinguished protégés.

He has declined to be interviewed prior to his testimony, but his accomplishments are on the public record.

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A graduate of the University of Calgary, Dr. Bridges was head of gastroenterology for the entire Calgary region from 2003 to 2007 before joining the university's faculty of medicine.

He gained national profile in 2008, when he became president of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology. The organization's mission statement is to foster research and innovation in the field along with "promoting and maintaining the highest ethical standards."

At the University of Calgary, Dr. Bridges currently sits on the second rank of the faculty of medicine organizational chart, behind only the dean, Dr. Jon Meddings.

His philanthropy includes charity fundraising work for Reach! – a joint faculty health department campaign that announced in 2009 it had raised more than $312-million from 700 donors.

In 2007, when used endoscopic equipment was about to be sold off at as discount as new machines came in, Dr. Bridges intervened to have the desperately needed equipment donated to medical facilities in South America.

Dr. Bridges' greatest legacy is considered to be the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, also known as CCSC.

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The idea for it was spawned in 2003, when the now-defunct Calgary health region realized it had a problem on its hands. The population was booming and aging, and the existing hospitals could not handle the colon-cancer tests. A stand-alone clinic was needed.

Dr. Bridges recalled brainstorming with Dr. Meddings on an idea to have the University of Calgary run such a clinic with the province as a partner.

"We talked and decided to jointly put in a proposal," said Dr. Bridges in an interview published in the July 1, 2011, issue of UCalgary Medicine magazine.

They needed funds, so Dr. Bridges sat down for lunch with local businessmen John Forzani and Keith MacPhail and explained how backlogs in colon-cancer screening were putting patients' lives at risk. Mr. MacPhail's mother had suffered through colon cancer, and both men were looking to make a difference. Through Reach!, the pair donated $2.7-million.

"This wasn't about betting on a long shot. This was about curing people," said Mr. Forzani in an article in the university's 2007-2008 Donor Impact Report.

In January, 2008, the CCSC opened on the sixth floor of the Teaching, Research and Wellness building at the Foothills Medical Centre. Dr. Alaa Rostom was recruited by Dr. Bridges to run the clinic as medical director, while Dr. Bridges was one of many doctors who performed colon-cancer tests there.

Dr. Valerie Boswell was hired in 2009 to prescreen patients. She testified last month that weird things started to happen in early 2010. Patients from the private Helios Wellness Centre, located two floors down from the CCSC, were getting fast-tracked to the front of the queue for routine tests that usually had three-year waits, she testified.

Helios offers a range of services for clients willing to pay $10,000 a year. It was founded by University of Calgary professor of radiology Dr. Chen Fong, who worked with Dr. Bridges on the Reach! campaign.

CCSC clerk Samantha Mallyon told the inquiry she was directed by supervisors to fast-track Helios patients to three doctors that included Dr. Rostom and Dr. Bridges.

Clerk David Beninger testified the clerks coined a name for them: "Dr. Bridges' private patients."

Soon, the Helios cases began spilling over into the Foothills Hospital.

In November, 2010, Dr. Jonathan Love, site chief for gastroenterology at the Foothills, testified he was directed via a Dr. Bridges note to urgently check a Helios patient for colon cancer. The woman's case, Dr. Love later testified, was routine or moderate risk at best. So why the rush?

Dr. Love paid a visit to Helios and testified that Helios' Dr. Doug Caine told him Helios was set up to reward deep-pocket donors from the University of Calgary.

Both Dr. Caine and Dr. Fong are scheduled to testify at the inquiry Tuesday.

Doctors Love, Boswell and Mark Swain, who is currently in charge of all gastroenterology in Calgary, have testified they voiced their concerns about Dr. Bridges possibly running his own private queue-jumping list of Helios patients. Dr. Rostom has testified that all he ever heard was rumours and there was nothing to substantiate them.

The one constant from the testimony – no one confronted Dr. Bridges directly.

There was a reason for that, said Dr. Swain.

Dr. Bridges, Dr. Swain testified, is a key fundraiser and manager, runs the clinics and decides which doctors practise at the CCSC.

"He would be one of the most powerful and significant people in the faculty of medicine," Dr. Swain testified. "That is a person that I think you'd have to have a lot of self-confidence to raise a concern about."

Dr. Love testified he didn't confront Dr. Bridges. He agreed with Dr. Swain's assessment, adding, "It has been my personal experience that legitimate differences of opinion don't really go well with [Dr. Bridges] and so I limit those."

Dr. Rostom testified since there was never any hard evidence to go on, he never asked Dr. Bridges if the rumours were true.

Barb Kathol, an executive director at the Foothills Hospital responsible for the CCSC, said when she heard about the Dr. Bridges rumours, she didn't go to Dr. Bridges, but followed the chain of command and went to Dr. Rostom, who told her there was nothing to worry about.

When Dr. Rostom's boss, Dr. Francois Belanger – head of the Calgary health region for Alberta Health Services – heard the rumours in early 2012 he, too, followed the chain of command. He testified that Dr. Rostom told him there was no problem.

Dr. Bridges is expected to take the stand this week.

If nothing else on Wednesday, after three years of whispers and behind-the-back accusations, it seems Dr. Bridges will finally be asked direct questions.

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