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Health workers look at an anti-vaccine mandate protest outside Toronto General Hospital in Toronto on Sept. 13, 2021.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Medical professionals and regulatory bodies are increasingly the targets for complaints, harassment and threats across Canada, as public frustration mounts toward the health care system. Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and fuelled at times by misinformation, abuse directed at health workers is a concerning sign of eroding trust in medical institutions, experts say.

Last month, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario announced limits to public access to its headquarters as a result of an increase in serious threats that pose a safety concern. In recent weeks, the social-media pages of the College of Psychologists of Ontario have been flooded with abuse after it ordered Jordan Peterson, a high-profile member, to take a coaching program to “address issues regarding professionalism in public statements.” The order came in response to complaints about some of Dr. Peterson’s controversial tweets and other public expressions. Some physician leaders say people who disagree with their public statements about COVID-19 and other matters are launching official complaints against them with their regulator.

“The tenor has changed,” said Cynthia Johansen, registrar and chief executive officer of the British Columbia College of Nurses and Midwives. “I think COVID amplified a situation that was already getting bad. Frustrations may have already been there, but now there’s just so much more cause for it.”

Colleges that regulate nurses, doctors and other medical professionals are responsible for protecting the public and ensuring that members are qualified, competent and held to account if they engage in unethical, illegal or other problematic activities.

In recent years, particularly since the start of the pandemic and rise of misinformation on social media, regulators are increasingly being asked to step in when medical professionals promote false or harmful information online. They’re also seeing more complaints from members of the public who are angry about a professional’s public discussion of health issues that have become more polarized during the pandemic.

Katharine Smart, the former president of the Canadian Medical Association, said someone filed a complaint against her with the Yukon physician regulator after she spoke publicly in support of vaccines. In many of these cases, the regulator ultimately rules these complaints as vexatious, but they take time and resources away from other more important cases, she said.

Lawrence Loh, who was the medical officer of health in Ontario’s Peel region during much of the pandemic, said he was the subject of eight or nine complaints, all of which were filed by people who were upset by COVID-19 measures. The complaints were all dismissed.

“For me, I think it really reflects a change in societal expectations and understanding of the role of various institutions,” said Dr. Loh, who is now the executive director and CEO of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. He added that misinformation and the rise of an on-demand culture means that more people expect medical regulators to rule in their favour when they launch a complaint, while the reality is that each complaint is assessed based on its merits.

Gus Grant, registrar and CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, said complaints against physicians have tripled in the last decade, which he believes is linked to lack of access, long waits and other system-wide challenges, rather than a sudden decline in the performance of the province’s doctors.

“Most of us in this space see it as a barometer of the pressure on the system, the frustration the public has with the medical profession,” Dr. Grant said. “Where we find ourselves is at a vulnerable, volatile place where public unrest collides with the medical system.”

In recent years, he said they’ve had to increase safety measures at their office as a result of abuse and threatening behaviour. The office is now only accessible with a key fob, the receptionist is seated behind plexiglass and a security guard often has to be present at disciplinary hearings.

“There’s a lot of fomenting of unrest toward the regulator.”

The rise of misinformation during the pandemic has accelerated this trend, Dr. Grant said, adding that medical regulators across the country have all experienced an uptick in derogatory comments and abuse online.

Ms. Johansen said regulators need to act when members engage in public behaviour that undermines their professionalism and ability to do their job, saying that all patients need to know they are safe and will be cared for. She cited the case of Amy Hamm, a nurse who is involved in a disciplinary hearing after the college determined she made discriminatory remarks against transgender people.

“There is the interpersonal connection that you make with a patient and client, and the trust that they have in you that you will provide them with absolute care and attention,” she said. “The moment that trust is broken, that for me is what is at stake here.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives’ process for investigating complaints against the medical professionals it regulates.

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