In this Thursday, May 14, 2020 photo, a doctor holds his stethoscope during a patient visit in Blackburn, England, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Doctors in British Columbia are being warned they could face investigation or penalties from their regulatory body if they contradict public health orders or guidance about COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah McKay/Pool Photo via AP

B.C. doctors could face penalty for veering from COVID-19 health guidelines: college

B.C. doctors could face penalty for veering from COVID-19 health guidelines: college

VANCOUVER — Doctors in British Columbia could face investigation or penalties from their regulatory body if they contradict public health orders or guidance about COVID-19, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. says.

Some doctors are spreading “misinformation that promotes anti-vaccine, anti-mask wearing, anti-physical distancing and anti-lockdown stances,” the college said in a joint statement with the First Nations Health Authority.

There’s also a concern that certain doctors are promoting COVID-19 treatments “not supported by widely accepted scientific evidence,” it said.

The public tends to place great weight on doctors’ opinions, while misinformation breaches public trust and violates a doctor’s ethical obligations, said the statement dated May 6.

“Physicians must be guided by the laws that govern them, regulatory practice standards and guidelines, the Code of Ethics and Professionalism, and scientific evidence when giving their opinions about COVID-19.”

Dr. Heidi Oetter, registrar and CEO of the college, said public statements from doctors that contradict accepted COVID-19 public health orders and guidance are “confusing and potentially harmful to patients.”

Doctors who veer from the guidelines could face an investigation or regulatory action, if the college considers it warranted, she said.

The harm caused by misleading and unsupported information is evident across B.C., particularly in Indigenous communities, the statement said.

Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and “already face barriers to accessing health care due to systemic racism,” said Dr. Nel Wieman, the health authority’s acting deputy chief medical officer.

“Misleading information adds another barrier at a time when the COVID-19 vaccine needs to be delivered to Indigenous people as quickly as possible.”

Both Wieman and Oetter are calling on doctors to ensure the safety of patients is not jeopardized by misinformation during the pandemic.

A handful of B.C. doctors have been vocal about their opposition to COVID-19 public health rules and vaccines in videos and statements posted online.

Dr. Stephen Malthouse, a family physician on Denman Island, penned an open letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry last October that falsely claimed people were “rarely” becoming ill from the new coronavirus. He also claimed masks are a “useless and even harmful measure.”

The letter proclaiming the pandemic was “over and no second wave will follow” was posted online by Vaccine Choice Canada, an organization that describes itself as a “watchdog” society for immunization in Canada.

Reached by phone, Malthouse said he had not seen the college’s statement, but encouraged the regulator to reach out to doctors who have differing views.

“We really need to have scientific debate about these topics rather than just having rules and regulations and attempts just to make doctors follow the policy alone. If doctors have questions about it, I think that the college should really be in a position to discuss it with them,” he said.

In addition to speaking at rallies against public health measures, Malthouse appears in a video posted by Liberty Coalition Canada alongside Duncan anesthesiologist Dr. Bill Code and several other B.C. and Ontario doctors.

Code describes treating “patients with early COVID-19” with vitamins and drugs including hydroxychloroquine. Almost a week before the video was posted online, a World Health Organization expert panel recommended against using that drug, once promoted by former U.S. president Donald Trump, finding it to be ineffective and potentially risky in treating COVID-19.

Code said by phone he believes his claims are based on scientific research, and that health officials and politicians are just telling one side of the story.

In another open letter addressed to B.C.’s top doctor and posted last month by Vaccine Choice Canada, Dr. Charles Hoffe of Lytton makes false and unproven claims while questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

A receptionist said Hoffe wasn’t at his office on Tuesday and he did not immediately respond to an email sent to the address provided.

A report from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows 54 adverse health events such as anaphylaxis, chest pain and possible neurological effects were considered serious out of 1.85 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the province as of May 1, a rate of 2.9 per 100,000 doses.

Ted Kuntz, president of Vaccine Choice Canada, said in a statement that B.C.’s college of physicians “seeks to muzzle open and honest debate,” rather than “recognize the importance of scientific inquiry.”

For the college “to imply that the science is settled and that anyone who disagrees with the (COVID-19 lockdown) measures is spreading ‘misinformation’ is unethical and immoral,” Kuntz said over email.

The Liberty Coalition of Canada did not respond to a request for comment.

The B.C. college is not the first in Canada to issue a warning about the risks of spreading misinformation.

The colleges of physicians and surgeons in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador each cautioned individual doctors earlier this year over their public statements decrying COVID-19 public health restrictions and guidance.

The Ontario college also released a statement last month saying it is “aware and concerned about the increase of misinformation circulating on social media and other platforms regarding physicians who are publicly contradicting public health orders and recommendations.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press


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