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The Globe and Mail

Doctors' college won't refer mistaken mastectomy surgeon to discipline committee

Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ont.

Greg Plante/Greg Plante/The Canadian Press

A surgeon from Windsor, Ont., who performed two unnecessary mastectomies won't be disciplined by the province's medical regulatory college.

One of the two women who had the surgery immediately asked for a review of a decision by the regulatory college not to discipline the doctor.

Barbara Heartwell became the subject of several investigations after it was revealed she performed unnecessary mastectomies on the women at Windsor's Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital.

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In November of 2009, Dr. Heartwell performed a mastectomy on Laurie Johnston of Leamington, Ont. Dr. Heartwell admitted she misread the results of a needle biopsy that found Ms. Johnston did not have cancer.

Janice Laporte, whose breast was removed by Dr. Heartwell in September of 2001, was told a week after her surgery that she didn't have cancer.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario launched investigations into Dr. Heartwell and pathologist Olive Williams, and the college's spokeswoman now says the Heartwell investigation has been completed. Kathryn Clarke said the outcome of the investigation cannot be publicly disclosed, but the college did not refer the matter to its discipline committee.

Usually, investigation outcomes that cannot be made public include: deciding no further action is necessary; cautioning the physician about some aspect of the doctor's conduct, care or treatment; or requiring the physician to participate in an educational program.

Barbara MacFarlane, the lawyer handling Ms. Johnston's continuing lawsuit against Dr. Heartwell, said her client is "obviously distressed" by the news.

"She is profoundly disappointed by the CPSO decision," she said Wednesday.

Ms. Johnston has asked the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board to look at the college's decision.

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The board cannot confirm when review requests are made in specific cases. The usual process is for parties to make submissions, then attend a pre-review conference, and then the matter goes before a panel that makes a decision.

The panel can confirm the college's decision, make recommendations, require the college to investigate further, require remedial action or refer the matter to a college committee.

Steve Erwin, a spokesman for the hospital, said the decision not to refer Dr. Heartwell to the discipline committee is consistent with the hospital's findings as well as a report from the province.

"Dr. Heartwell continues to perform surgeries here, as she should," he said on Wednesday. "She's an excellent surgeon."

Dr. Heartwell has conducted nearly 700 mastectomies with no concerns, Mr. Erwin added.

A provincial report into pathology errors largely cleared Dr. Heartwell, but uncovered "significant concerns" with Dr. Williams's work.

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After reviewing more than 6,000 reports back to 2003, investigators had moderate or major disagreements with the original diagnosis in 221 of the cases by Dr. Williams.

Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital has restored full privileges to Dr. Heartwell. The hospital suspended Dr. Williams last year and she has since resigned.

Mr. Erwin said there are lessons to be learned about how people view medical mistakes.

"As a society we like to think that our doctors are perfect and they're not," he said.

"You want medical professionals to be able to come forward and ultimately discuss unintended errors when they occur. Shaming health-care professionals in public is not going to make the system any safer."

The Canadian Press

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