The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has recently sanctioned six physicians for cyberbullying. Three additional physicians are set to have disciplinary hearings into alleged “professional misconduct” related to online behavior, and investigations into an additional two physicians are ongoing.

A Short History of the Issue

The sanctions all relate to infighting between physicians stemming from a contract dispute between the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) and the provincial government that led to the online targeting of a number of individuals including the former OMA president, a Toronto family physician, a medical student, and Ontario’s Health Minister.

The three physicians facing disciplinary hearings are alleged to all have sent “offensive, objectionable and inappropriate communications” to the former OMA president in the lead up to a ratification vote on a tentative contract.

Investigations have been overseen by the CPSO’s Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee and could lead to further disciplinary hearings.

Examples of the Online Behaviour Leading to Sanctions

Some of the email communications that are the subject of the discipline proceedings or that are being investigated include:

  • An email sent by an anesthesiologist to the former OMA president which stated: “You are a c—. Crash and burn as you deserve to do!! This will be a NO vote and the end of the OMA. Sincerely, F— YOU and the OMA!!!”
  • An email sent by a radiologist to the former OMA president which stated: “(Virginia): Are you serious? F— You! Mark.”
  • A message posted on a Facebook group for doctors. The message was posted by a family physician about another doctor, Dr. Philip Berger, who had written a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star criticizing a group of physicians who were threatening work action and planning to overthrow the OMA board. The Facebook message read: “Coño hijo de puta anda a chupar Berger. Sorry. Couldn’t hold that rant back. I revert to my native tongue when mad.” (translated as: “P—y, you son of a w—e. Why don’t you go and suck Berger…”
  • An email sent by a radiologist about a medical student who had voiced support for a tentative fee agreement. The email stated: “That kid should be shot with a ball of his own s—.”
  • A message posted by an ER physician on a Facebook message board which referred to Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins as “Reichminister Hoskins”, and a further message which stated (in response to someone who asked the physician to stop using such language): “When [Hoskins] stops acting like a dictator, and smearing colleagues with his lies, I might consider it”.
  • A message posted on a Facebook forum by a physician, apparently angry at Dr. Berger for an opinion piece in a newspaper which argued that money was at the heart of the dispute between the province and doctors. The message suggested that Dr. Berger needed a sedative, stating: “Whew. Lorazepam 0.5s/l stat over here please.” Another message written by the same doctor about Dr. Berger stated: “RT (Re-Tweet) = gathering the wolf pack to go hunting. Berger is the target here.”
  • A family doctor who replied to two mass emails from the OMA to Ontario doctors by stating: “I don’t believe you guys anymore. Stop sending me shit” and “F— off.”

The CPSO’s Response

The CPSO sanctioned each of the above physicians with regulatory penalties, noting, in separate decisions that:

  • The family physician acted “intemperate” by posting “profanity-laced, derogatory comments about a colleague”
  • “It (is) important for physicians, because of their position of trust within society, to understand that they can harm the profession and cause the public to lose trust when they communicate in an unprofessional manner,”
  • “It was difficult to accept that [the radiologist] could be ignorant of the unintended consequences of unprofessional email communication . . . Given his leadership role in the profession, [the radiologist’s] communications are more important and open to scrutiny than someone not in a position of authority.”
  • “… it should be common knowledge among educated professionals such as [the ER physician] that this type of metaphor causes grave offense to many people and is not acceptable in a public forum. Moreover, the committee noted that [the ER physician’s] comment makes light of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, which is beneath the dignity of a physician.”

Importantly, the CPSO also provided a powerful reminder that: “Social media communications are never truly private or secure.”

Bullying in the Medical Profession

According to the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which represents more than 86,000 doctors across Canada, problems with bullying and disrespect are widespread within the medical profession.  The Association has begun a campaign intended to proactively address the issue, which is considers serious as it believes patient care is affected when doctors cannot cooperate and work well together. Steps taken include:

  • a series of town hall meetings on the issue of cyberbullying;
  • an annual general meeting centered around the theme of “unifying the medical profession”;
  • developing a draft Charter of Shared Values; and
  • working on a new code of ethics and professionalism.

The OMA, who was at the center of the online bullying firestorm, has stated that it is also taking steps to adopt a framework that would “help guide member interactions”.

If you are a regulated health professional facing a complaint, investigation, or disciplinary hearing at your College, contact the trusted and respected health lawyers at Wise Health Law. We will help you understand your rights, risks, and options, guide you through the process, and skillfully represent you at the proceedings.  We have significant expertise assisting physicians and other health professionals in the civil and regulatory contexts, including in the complaints and discipline process, in litigation, in appeals and judicial reviews. Contact us for forward-thinking advice about health law and regulatory matters. Reach us online, or at 416-915-4234 for a consultation.

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