N.S. government says no legal action over social media post on woman’s hospital death

Nova Scotia’s Justice Department said Tuesday it won’t pursue legal action against a politician who posted information about a woman who died in hospital after a seven-hour wait for a doctor.

The department sent an email Friday to Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the Independent member for Cumberland North, advising her to take down a letter on her Facebook page that she had written to Health Minister Michelle Thompson.

“The email did threaten to take legal action against me if I did not remove the post,” Smith-McCrossin told reporters on Monday.

As of Tuesday, the letter was still on her Facebook page. It names 37-year-old Allison Holthoff and describes her as a wife and mother of three who died at the Cumberland Regional Health Center on Dec. 31.

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In an emailed statement late Tuesday, the department expressed its sympathy to the Holthoff family and said it respects the right of members of the legislature to advocate on behalf of their constituents.

It said its message to Smith-McCrossin had been about the importance of respecting personal health information, adding that “it was not clear from the MLA’s letter that they had the permission of their constituents to share this information.”

There was no indication that the department attempted to find that out, and a spokeswoman in Smith-McCrossin’s office said the department did not inquire before sending its warning Friday.

“Given that the family has made the information public, no further action is being considered,” the department said Tuesday.

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The Justice Department’s Friday email, obtained following a request to Smith-McCrossin’s office, advises her that health information is protected under the Personal Health Information Act and Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“I am drawing this to your attention so you can consider whether you would like to remove personal health information details from your posted correspondence and limit further disclosure of this personal information,” wrote Michelle Higgins, executive director of the department’s legal services division.

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“If the personal health information continues to be disseminated on social media, we will consider all available legal options.”

Smith-McCrossin has said she was just doing her job in advocating for a constituent. She said Holthoff’s husband, Gunter Holthoff, came to her looking for help on Jan. 3. The letter to the health minister was posted three days later.

Gunter Holthoff and his 37-year-old wife, Allison, are shown in this undated handout photo. Allison Holthoff died New Year’s Eve after she was taken to the emergency room at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Center, in Amherst, NS

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Gunter Holthoff

Holthoff has since told his wife’s story to several media outlets and provided details of her final hours in hospital.

He said that he took his wife to the hospital when she collapsed in extreme pain after complaining of an upset stomach at their home near Amherst, N.S., around 11 am on Dec. 31.

After being triaged by hospital staff, she waited more than six hours in the emergency department before she was taken to a room inside the unit, he said.

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It was another hour before she saw a doctor and received pain treatment.

She later died after doctors determined her condition had deteriorated to the point where she could not be helped. Her cause of death has not been released.

Nova Scotia’s health authority is conducting a review of what happened at the hospital.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023.

&copy 2023 The Canadian Press

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