ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The Newfoundland health board at the centre of a public inquiry into its response to botched breast-cancer tests is defending itself against accusations it's trying to muzzle its employees by requiring them to sign a new oath of confidentiality.

The Eastern Health authority recently sent privacy agreements to its staff that would prohibit them from speaking publicly about information it considers confidential during their employment and beyond.

"This includes confidential and/or private information concerning patient/client/resident, staff or the business of Eastern Health," the policy reads.

John Guy, Eastern Health's director of medical services, said Monday the contract is based on similar ones at health boards throughout Canada and is not intended to gag doctors.

"In no way was this document or the pledge of confidentiality ... in there to muzzle - because I've heard that phrase used - to muzzle individuals from being patient advocates," Guy said during a news conference.

"If indeed there are problems, then Eastern Health is more than happy and obligated to look at those concerns, discuss them with the appropriate bodies ... and where necessary, make the appropriate changes."

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, which represents roughly 1,000 practising physicians in the province, said it respects the stipulations surrounding patient and staff privacy.

But Robert Ritter, the association's executive director, said the clause concerning Eastern Health's business is too broad and may discourage doctors from speaking out about any operational problems at the health board.

"In the event that appropriate action isn't taken, there needs to be a sense that they're not being impeded from public disclosure," Ritter said.

"For example, if there are shortages of physicians in a particular group, and that issue is brought to the attention of the administration for an extended period of time and no action is taken, I think then the physician group should feel free to discuss that in the public arena."

Guy said the reference to Eastern Health's business relates to the health board's financial records.

But Ritter said if that's the case, it should be outlined as such in the agreement.

"I just find that what they say verbally in a press conference just isn't good enough," he said.

"We need very precise terms of reference. If they're saying financial, then the document should say financial, not business."

Ritter said he is urging physicians not to sign the agreement until his organization gets legal advice.

Eastern Health has come under much scrutiny in the past year since it was revealed that nearly 400 patients were given the wrong results on their breast-cancer tests over an eight-year span.

The health board is currently the subject of a public inquiry into how the testing errors happened and whether Eastern Health responded to patients and the public in an appropriate and timely manner.

The public only became aware of the flawed tests after a local weekly newspaper reported on them in October 2005.

The scope of the problems wasn't revealed until May 2007, after affidavits were filed as part of a class-action lawsuit against Eastern Health over the faulty tests.

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