Abuse toward Manitoba doctors is escalating and threatening future recruitment and retention, physicians warn.

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This article was published 20/12/2021 (193 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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Abuse toward Manitoba doctors is escalating and threatening future recruitment and retention, physicians warn.

Over the past month alone, 57 per cent of physicians surveyed in the province reported they’ve been mistreated, including verbal abuse, bullying, intimidation assault and threats.

Doctors Manitoba, which represents more than 4,000 physicians, released the survey results Monday. It was based on responses from 403 doctors — stating more than half of the reported incidents have been related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manitobans who disagree with public health restrictions or vaccines, or have been frustrated with health-care visitation policies or long wait lists, have turned their frustrations on doctors and front-line health professionals, mirroring a national increase in the levels of harassment directed at doctors.

Rural physicians and those who are already marginalized, including women and persons of colour, are more likely to be targets, the survey found.

It’s now a "critical" issue, said Doctors Manitoba president and ER physician Dr. Kristjan Thompson.

"These are alarming statistics that are contributing to an already concerning level of stress and burnout in the medical profession, and we are worried about what they meant to the recruitment and retention of physicians across this province," he said.

"These are alarming statistics that are contributing to an already concerning level of stress and burnout in the medical profession, and we are worried about what they meant to the recruitment and retention of physicians across this province." –Dr. Kristjan Thompson

Rates of abuse, according to the doctors who responded to the survey, were highest in the Northern, Interlake-Eastern and Southern health regions and were more likely to affect younger doctors.

Dr. Don Klassen, a family doctor in the Morden-Winkler area who works out of the Boundary Trails Health Centre, said this is the worst mistreatment he’s witnessed toward front-line caregivers in his more than 40 years of practice.

"Until two years ago, I might have said it was impossible that we’d be having this press conference and calling for respect and civility," Klassen said.

A letter was delivered to his office "which is the first time I’ve had it suggested to me that somebody would put a gun to my head," he said.

Klassen said he is aware of several doctors planning to leave Boundary Trails next spring and summer, due in part to the current environment. Replacing their positions will be difficult, he added.

A small number of Manitoba doctors have been targeted at their homes, according to the survey results.

Federal legislation passed Dec. 17 makes it a criminal offence to intimidate a health-care worker and get in the way of their ability to carry out their duties. The Canadian Medical Association lobbied for the new legislation because it is flagging similar abuse on a national scale, said association president Dr. Katharine Smart.

"This has been an experience across the country. We’ve seen protests happening in people’s driveways, in front of their homes," she said. "This particularly happens to family doctors in smaller communities where they’re well-known and patients know where they live and that line between personal and professional is more challenging.

"So I think that is a potential real risk in terms of people’s longevity in some of these communities. They may feel directly targeted and that’s very concerning as we already have a huge challenge with primary care in this country."

"I think that is a potential real risk in terms of people’s longevity in some of these communities. They may feel directly targeted and that’s very concerning as we already have a huge challenge with primary care in this country." –Dr. Katharine Smart

In Manitoba, doctors are calling on provincial officials and health-care leadership to enforce zero-tolerance policies. Solutions could involve more security measures, de-escalation training and other supports for front-line health-care workers, Thompson said.

He shared a personal interaction with an unvaccinated man who was visiting his dying mother during the third wave. The man refused to wear a mask when Thompson asked him politely, and coughed in the doctor’s face and shoved him. Security had to escort the man out of the ER.

"A few minutes later, after things settled, I had gone back out to speak with him and we got to talking."

Thompson said the man apologized; he’d been feeling guilty for not being able to visit his mother in her personal care home. The doctor shared similar frustrations about not being able to visit an ill family member.

"What started as a really just unpleasant and awful experience, I think, was this beautiful, human moment of understanding and forgiveness," Thompson said.

The man agreed to wear a mask so he could be present for his mother’s last moments. However, Thompson said policies that support health-care workers need to come from the top.

"Unfortunately, mistreatment has reached a level that requires continuous focus across health care, and so we need, at a provincial level, our health leaders and government to ensure that safety is enforced and that health-care providers on the front lines are supported."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.