Alberta’s only female cardiovascular surgeon files human rights complaint against AHS

In her 34 years as a cardiovascular surgeon at the Foothills Medical Centre, Dr. Teresa Kieser has much to celebrate.

She’s been recognized both nationally and internationally for her work in the operating room, and for the countless medical and research papers she’s published. 

However, her journey hasn’t been easy, and the difficult times have culminated in a human rights complaint against Alberta Health Services (AHS) for allegations of sex and gender-based inequities in the cardiovascular medicine department that Kieser says she’s had to endure.

“I was always starting to watch my back for things that people would criticize or try to change in me, and it got to the point where it was tough to work,” Kieser said.

“It seems that as my profile became more international it seemed to get worse.”

Kieser says the gender-based discrimination she experienced started when she was hired at the Foothills in 1988, but a complaint lodged against her in 2020 is what prompted her to file a human rights complaint.

Kieser’s 11-page complaint explains that in November 2020, a male colleague raised questions about her judgment, clinical decision-making and technical abilities relating to two patient cases. An external investigation was launched, and during that time, Kieser was forbidden from performing surgeries for more than a year. 

“It was the hardest time of my life, to not be able to give in the way that I am trained and wanted to do. It’s the worst thing you can do to somebody.”

During the investigation into Kieser, the external reviewer informed AHS that a five-year data analysis of her work would be required to properly compare it with other surgeons in her group, but AHS did not initiate the recommendations of the reviewer.

“I welcomed this, and I wanted to do this,” said Kieser.

“I wanted to show them that I am a good surgeon, but for some reason it wasn’t done.”

The matter was then referred to a hearing scheduled for January 2022, but before it took place, a resolution was reached and Kieser was allowed to continue performing surgeries. 

A spokesperson with AHS would not comment specifically on the case, citing privacy concerns, but a statement, in part, says:

“Alberta Health Services is committed to creating safe and secure workplaces for all physicians, staff, patients, and families. Any form of harassment or violence is not tolerated. AHS recognizes the opportunity to better support our women physicians, women physician leaders and our entire physician workplace. Any instances or inappropriate behaviour are considered thoroughly and confidentially and we take appropriate action to ensure our people are safe and protected.”

Sophie Purnell, an employment and labour lawyer who represents Kieser, says that AHS responded to the human rights complaint claim and denied the allegations.

“Some of these organizations have harassment policies in place to avoid discrimination, but what it looks like in practice can be two totally different things,” said Purnell.

Kieser’s allegation is that the 2020 complaint is the most recent in a history of mistreatment and discrimination against her. However, because of the one-year limitation for human rights complaints, the older complaints won’t be evaluated by Alberta’s commission. 

Purnell said it was still important to include the details.

“The context really helps to inform the recent incidents and to really make that link that this is gender discrimination,” Purnell said.

Purnell says since 2004, there have been several other professional negligence complaints made against her client, including questioning Kieser’s surgical abilities and judgement. 

According to the human rights complaint claim, in one case, one of her male superiors said she was taking too long to perform certain surgeries and suggested she retire. But Kieser says it was this very technique she was performing that propelled her career and has become standard practice. 

“I believe it’s because I do arterial grafting which lasts longer and it takes about that time for people to see the results, and then I became so popular from the cardiologists my career snowballed,” said Dr. Kieser.

Her lawyer says in each of the complaints lodged against her, an external reviewer determined the allegations to be baseless. 

Kieser says she was treated unfairly and her colleagues in the cardiac surgery unit, all of which are male, were not subjected to this level of persistent discriminatory conduct.

Kieser says she felt she needed to go public with her story to protect other female surgeons.

“I don’t want anything to happen to them,” she said.

“I’m at the end of my career and I can just fade off into the sunset. But they have a whole career to go, and it has to be made apparent to people everywhere that there is this unconscious bias.”

In addition to seeking compensation for pain, suffering and repayment of lost wages, Kieser says she wants changes to be made within in the cardiovascular medicine department

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