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Finding the right balance – a conversation with CMTBC Registrar and CEO Eric Wredenhagen

Eric Wredenhagen became CMTBC’s Registrar and CEO on July 1, 2016. Eric joined the College after working 18 years as a lawyer, with a focus for much of his legal career on professional regulation. Not long before reaching the three-month mark at CMTBC, Eric participated in an interview about his experience with professional regulation and priorities for the College.

As a lawyer in private practice you focused on professional regulation; you were also Discipline Counsel for the Law Society of British Columbia, in-house Legal Counsel for the BC College of Teachers, and Director of Legal Services for the Real Estate Council of BC. How did that combined experience prepare you for the job of leading CMTBC?

My experience with different professional regulators taught me a lot about the world of self-regulation as it’s practiced in Canada. The Law Society was a great place to start because it’s a long-established organization, dating back to the nineteenth century. The Society has built up a wide body of knowledge about process and law and how to do self-regulation effectively. At the College of Teachers, we dealt with concerns about inappropriate relationships between teachers and students. That got me sensitized to the issue of boundary violations that occur in the professional context. The fact that I’ve worked in a number of regulatory bodies of different kinds lets me bring all of that experience to CMTBC. The College has made a strong commitment to being an innovative and excellent regulator, and I’m looking forward to helping it to achieve that goal.

Before you became the Registrar, CMTBC retained you for legal services. What type of work did you do for the College?

I worked on a number of investigations, so I had first-hand experience with investigating complaints and seeing the kinds of issues that arise in the complaints process. I also provided legal advice and opinions to the College’s Board and staff, and I acted as independent legal counsel for a number of College discipline hearings. As a lawyer, I find the issues that the College deals with very interesting and challenging. On a professional level, I enjoy tackling those kinds of difficult and complex issues.

Have you also represented members of a health profession in the past?

I haven’t represented individual health professionals in the regulatory context, although in my other work as a lawyer I have represented individuals who have been subject to discipline. Have I represented individuals who are in jeopardy as a result of some sort of regulatory process, employment process, or legal process? Yes, absolutely I have. I understand how those people feel when they feel the weight of an authority such as a regulator. One of the things I bring to my work here is based on that understanding, that while we have to protect the public and that’s our number one mandate and mission, we also have to do that in a way that’s completely fair to an individual member of the profession who faces scrutiny. Any complaint or case against someone has to be proven to the correct standard. You absolutely cannot make assumptions in either direction. You have to be rigorous and thorough when you gather evidence and in the way you look at the law. It’s a matter of finding the right balance of all of those things.

What have you learned from your professional experience about the concept of self-regulation? Why is self-regulation a critical component for protection of the public interest?

I’m a very strong believer in self-regulation. However, I’m also aware that some members of the public are skeptical about self-regulation because they see it as groups of professionals looking out for their own interests. But if it’s done properly, with a focus on the public interest, it’s the most effective way to regulate the behaviour of a professional group. It’s the most responsive to the public and it’s done by people who really know the profession inside out. That’s the huge advantage that it has over other forms of regulation. Our challenge as regulators is to do it well, to do it properly, and to do it truly in the public interest and not in the profession’s own interest.

How would you describe the role of the College in regulation of the massage therapy profession in BC?

The role of the College is to protect the public by promoting, supporting, and maintaining clearly defined professional and ethical standards within the massage therapy profession. I don’t think you can really be a profession without a professional regulator. The public has to see that it’s not just a title and that the College is there to represent the profession’s collective commitment to maintaining standards of conduct, ethics, and professionalism. That builds trust in the public for the profession. Massage therapists are seen as respected professionals in the health care system, and one of our main roles as the College is to support that.

What are the main priorities for CMTBC?

In the past couple of years, there has been a very heavy emphasis on complaints and discipline proceedings, and that is still working its way through the system. At the same time, we’re a relatively small College. We have to be mindful of our budget and our funding, and although dealing with complaints and discipline is very important, it’s not our only responsibility. So one of my goals is to look at the way we carry out that process and think about ways that we can put more emphasis on the College’s work in other areas.

To reduce the amount of resources that go into complaints, would the College like to see a reduction in the number of complaints that are made?

In regulation as in everything else, prevention is generally better than cure. So looking at things long term, yes, that’s something we would like to see. If there’s a way we can, through education and communications, work on ways to reduce the number of complaints, that would be great, because it would mean that the kinds of things that cause complaints to happen in the first place are becoming less frequent. That’s good for everybody. If we can find effective ways not only to deal with complaints on a legal level, but also to educate and prevent so we get fewer complaints, that’s serving the public interest well.

What are the main educational outcomes CMTBC is aiming for with the online courses the College is beginning to offer and other outreach initiatives?

The online courses on social media awareness, health records, and other topics we will cover, are designed to increase the focus on professionalism, ethics, and boundaries. We think that they will be a valuable resource to members of the profession. One of the things we need to focus on doing more is putting ourselves out there and making people more aware of the professional and ethical standards and our mission.

In your first few months on the job, have you been hands-on in making adjustments to the College’s processes? Or have you focused on observing, listening, absorbing, and understanding what needs to be done?

It’s really been both at the same time. It’s a matter of making adjustments where they’re needed. But I also realize that I have a lot of learning to do. I understand the professional regulation world and the legal world, but I still have things I need to learn about the massage therapy world. I’m fortunate that the College has a great Deputy Registrar, Annette Ruitenbeek, who’s been here for a long time, who is an RMT, and who understands that world extremely well. She and the other CMTBC staff members have knowledge that is very complementary to mine. The College is not one person. The College is all of us working together.

What are your thoughts about the effectiveness of CMTBC’s communications?

The College has been putting out its message primarily through its website and newsletter, but I don’t know that we’re necessarily always getting our message out there as well as we could be. I want to put the focus on more and better communication, and look at as many ways as possible to reach members of the profession and the public.

One of the resolutions that was passed at the College’s last AGM was for CMTBC to have a solid financial plan. What can you say about the College’s five-year strategic financial plan that was approved in 2014?

It’s prudent and responsible for any organization to have a long-term financial plan, especially an organization that’s carrying out a public responsibility. We can’t do our job without sufficient funds, and we recognize that we ask our registrants to fund us. So we’re responsible to them to make sure that we spend their money properly and efficiently, and we’re also responsible to the public to do what we are required to do by the government under our statute. Our job is to find the right way to balance those responsibilities. I will keep a close eye on budget levels, reserve levels, and our overall financial ability to meet all of our commitments, and recommend adjustments to the plan if needed.

What message would you like to give the RMT community and the public about the College’s regulatory approach under your leadership?

We want the public and the RMT community to trust us and to believe that we’re going to act fairly and with integrity. I don’t want massage therapists to fear the regulator, but I want them to understand that the regulator ultimately is answerable to the public. So again it’s a balance. If they face a complaint by a member of the public, they should understand that the regulator has to look at it, but also feel confident that the regulator is going to treat them fairly.

I want to be seen as a College that’s open to everyone. If members of the public have a concern, issue, or question, they should get in touch with us. The same is true for members of the profession. We’re not a support or advocacy organization, but we are the people who best know the professional and ethical standards that guide the profession. So if anyone has a question about the College’s standards or requirements, we are here.

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