Experts are calling for an overhaul of the regulatory bodies that oversee Canada’s health professionals, as provincial health ministries and Colleges shirk responsibility for doctors accused of spreading unverified medical information about COVID-19 vaccines.
A Global News investigation this week revealed a web of doctors, mostly based in B.C. and Ontario, have been sharing unproven medical information about vaccine side effects in an attempt to persuade the public not to get vaccinated, while others have been accused of issuing false vaccine exemptions or prescribing unverified treatments.
As a result, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott on Wednesday publicly urged the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) to crack down on its members, labelling the reports “extremely concerning.”
But experts say such comments don’t go far enough in addressing the problem.
“This is meaningless,” Wayne Petrozzi, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Politics at Ryerson University, says.
“There’s a limit to how much they have to listen to you. So assuring the public you’re going to talk to them, that you’re going to raise your voice with them, is no assurance at all,” Petrozzi says.
40 physicians under investigation
Elliott’s comments came as B.C. and Ontario’s health ministries and Colleges appear to be shifting the blame onto each other to stem the flow of disinformation.
Elliott said on Wednesday she would be sending a letter to the CPSO “urging them to do everything that is possible to put an end to this behaviour.”
“They should consider all options in doing so, including reviewing the licences of physicians found to be spreading misinformation,” Elliott says.
But the CPSO says they are already doing that.
Currently, more than 40 physicians are being investigated in regards to their conduct relating to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, a CPSO spokesperson said. Seven have suspensions or restrictions placed on their medical licences.
Elliott and the Ministry of Health have so far refused to answer all questions from Global News on provincial doctors sharing unverified medical information and issuing vaccine exemptions. Questions around what more the CPSO could be doing to address this have also gone unanswered.
CPSBC refuses to release investigation numbers
In B.C., the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia (CPSBC) continues to refuse to release the number of COVID-related complaints it has received.
None of the B.C. doctors Global News highlighted for sharing unverified medical information or issuing false vaccine exemptions have restrictions or suspensions placed on their licences.
Under BC’s Health Protection Act, the CPSBC has the power to suspend a physician’s licence, or impose limits or conditions on it, before a hearing, if it is necessary to “protect the public.”
The CPSBC did not respond to questions about why it has declined to do so.
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In August 2020, an all-party steering committee made its final report on how to overhaul the way B.C.’s health-care workers are regulated — which provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix said would “bring health professional regulation into the 21st Century.”
The changes would reduce the province’s 20 regulatory Colleges to six, changing the governance of college boards to allow for equal public and professional membership and creating a new oversight body tasked with setting standards across Colleges and acting as a disciplinary authority.
It has not yet been brought to the legislature.
When asked about the need for tighter laws in regards to disinformation, the CPSBC said it had “made recommendations to the tri-party steering committee,” including amendments to the Health Professions Act, but “only the government can update legislation.”
The B.C. Ministry of Health declined to answer specific questions.
When asked if it needed outside help to stem the flow of disinformation and to speed the investigation process up, which can take years, the spokesperson simply said “no.”
“Some people think the College isn’t doing enough and an equal number think the College is overstepping,” the spokesperson said.
'The system may not be working'
In Ontario, the Regulated Health Professions Act was amended in 2017 to allow the Health Minister greater power in regulating College committees and panels and expanding the purposes for which the Minister can require the CPSO to collect information from members.
But experts say these amendments should go further.
Dr. Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said he was “shocked” at the number of doctors being investigated for COVID-related issues in the province.
“This is evidence that the system may not be working,” Bowman said.
“When we look at the effect in a prolonged public health crisis they’re very severe.”
Bowman said the argument in favour of freedom of speech “is not relevant” in this context, as it’s “medical information that moves against the principles of medicine.”
“There’s a difference between freedom of speech as a citizen and freedom of speech as a profession. Physicians have absolutely a highly elevated ethical responsibility to the community, and the very nature of medicine itself is the platform is evidence-based science and research.”
Trudo Lemmens, Scholl chair of health law and policy at the University of Toronto, said Colleges are currently doing more to sanction members for misinformation than they have done in the past, but they “need to be more proactive.”
He says, in the past, a lack of action has sometimes had drastic consequences.
“Canadian physicians have been involved in misrepresentation of findings and in contributing to the overprescription of drugs, including, for example, in the opioid context, which is… the contributing factor to the opioid crisis that we currently have.”
However, Lemmens says the Colleges must ensure they “walk a fine line” so they are not “stifling a normal debate.”
“You want to be careful not to impose on the Colleges an excessive level of policing that would lead them to interfere with normal debate within the medical community about the safety and efficacy of medications or vaccines,” he says.
'We shouldn't be comfortable being the chickens'
Petrozzi said Elliott’s comments were “meaningless” and more concrete action needs to be taken.
Self-regulated professions, such as in health care, need “much more in the way of transparency than we currently get” as self-regulatory bodies grapple with protecting both the public interest and its own, Petrozzi says.
He added an overhaul was necessary to allow government representatives to investigate the professions, increase openness and transparency in its activities and decision making and put stricter rules in place for the timeliness of investigations.
“We shouldn’t be comfortable being the chickens.”