Grieving family wants to know why ministry relied on fax machines

Nyla and Robert Matuk say their mother should not have had her licence renewed in May 2020. She died from injuries in a car crash two months later.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read July 14, 2021

A family photo of Dr. Naeema Matuk. She died from injuries received in a single-car crash in July 2020 Nyla Matuk / Handout photo

A grieving Ottawa family says their mother might still be alive if the Ministry of Transportation did not rely on fax machines to receive critical medical information about the province’s drivers.

Nyla and Robert Matuk say their mother, Dr. Naeema Matuk, should not have had her licence renewed in May 2020, two months after a doctor advised the MTO that it was dangerous for her to continue driving because of cognitive decline.

The MTO said it did not receive the fax.

Dr. Matuk died from the catastrophic injuries she received in a single-car crash on Carling Avenue in July 2020.

The 85-year-old lost control of her car, swerved across several lanes of traffic and slammed into a house on the opposite side of the street. She died in hospital two weeks later.

“The question that must be asked is, ‘Why was the MTO relying on fax technology in 2020?” the Matuks said in a written statement. “Businesses and governments everywhere rely on much more certain and modern forms of information transmission, including email and online portals.”

Ontario law requires doctors, optometrists and nurse practitioners to report to Ontario any medical conditions, eye problems or physical limitations that make it dangerous for patients to drive. Medical officials can be found liable for failing to report someone unfit to get behind the wheel.

Nyla Matuk, however, contends the MTO itself is guilty of negligence for relying on fax machines to receive medical reports about drivers.

“This problem has been identified for a very long time,” Matuk, a Toronto-based poet and writer, said Tuesday. “This fax machine situation seems like the most egregious form of neglect.”

An MTO spokesperson said Tuesday that the ministry had recently modernized its case management system and introduced new “digital channels” of communication. “While the ministry has added new ways for a client or medical practitioner to submit medical reports, we are mindful that some will continue to rely on using fax and posted mail,” Lee Alderson said.

The Matuk case is not the first to highlight shortcomings of the MTO’s licence suspension system.

In 2018, a coroner’s jury in Sudbury recommended that licence review forms be improved so that medical officials could indicate the level of urgency involved. The jury also recommended that the MTO create a system allowing medical forms to be submitted electronically.

That inquest examined the death of Walter Blight, a 72-year-old man with severe respiratory illness who died in a collision on Highway 69 in July 2015. Blight’s van crossed the centre line and crashed into a transport truck.

A doctor and a police officer had recommended Blight’s licence be suspended in the weeks before he died, but MTO said it did not have time to act.

The death of Dr. Matuk was investigated by Ottawa coroner Dr. Gordon Watt. Watt found that an Ottawa doctor had sent a fax to the MTO on March 13, 2020, advising that Matuk exhibited signs of cognitive impairment. She had scored 15/30 on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test.

An MTO official told the coroner that the department did not receive the fax. “It was discovered that, at times, faxed documents may not be received at the MTO office as paper could be jammed in the fax machine or other difficulties could arise,” Dr. Watt reported.

In April 2014, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin noted that the province received more than 50,000 medical reports a year about drivers’ potential safety risks and that the MTO aimed to process new reports within 30 business days — a target it doesn’t always reach.

A medical analyst must review each report to decide whether to suspend a driver or seek more medical information; the analysts use standards designed to balance road safety and mobility concerns.

At the time, in 2014, the MTO said it was implementing an online reporting system for physicians to streamline the process.

Dr. Naeema Matuk was a pioneering medical doctor. Born in India, Matuk attended medical school in Karachi, Pakistan, where she was the only woman in her graduating class. After moving to Ottawa in the early 1970s, she became one of the first women of colour to practise medicine in this city, opening a family clinic on Metcalfe Street that attracted hundreds of patients, mostly women, from Ottawa’s Muslim and diplomatic communities.