The regulator for Alberta doctors is exploring ways to speed up its investigations into physicians accused of spreading misinformation or treating patients with unproven COVID-19 remedies.
"Our processes can be slow but we're looking at ways that we can expedite that," Dr. Scott McLeod, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, told a news conference Wednesday.
McLeod said the CPSA will prioritize pandemic complaints reviews to ensure patients are protected. If verbal warnings are ignored, doctors will be punished, he said.
"If somebody is completely defiant to any kind of guidance … and they're continuing to promote bad practice and putting people at risk, we have no problems with following through with the authorities that we have to bring on disciplinary action," McLeod said.
"Unfortunately, the longest route in that process is the hearing tribunal process."
The CPSA is the regulator for all physicians, physician assistants, osteopaths, and surgeons in the province. Anyone can file a complaint with the college, including members of the public.
A complaint can result in a formal investigation and, in rare cases, a tribunal to determine guilt and penalty.
Tribunals can result in restrictions on a doctor's ability to practice, suspension or loss of the physician's practice permit, a fine, or a mandate for additional training.
'Follow the science'
The college has already spoken with some doctors about granting exemption letters for masks or vaccines to patients who didn't have medical reasons for needing them.
McLeod said others have been warned about sharing half-truths and "cherry-picked" data on social media, or prescribing unproven remedies for COVID-19 including ivermectin, a livestock de-wormer.
He declined to reveal how many investigations are ongoing, citing privacy legislation, but said the number of complaints has increased.
As of last week, the college had told at least seven doctors who were spreading misinformation about COVID-19 that their behaviour was unprofessional.
"Our expectation is that physicians follow the science," McLeod said.
The college issued a letter this week reiterating its support for vaccines and public health restrictions — and warning doctors about the ramifications of undermining the pandemic response.
"There is a deep concern that those who have chosen not to be vaccinated are contributing to the public health emergency we are in today," reads the letter from the college council.
"Council and CPSA's leadership team are also very perturbed by a small number of physicians who are spreading misinformation and even prescribing medications when there is no evidence of their benefits in treating COVID-19."
The letter follows a Sept. 20 emergency meeting of the CPSA council when members agreed that it is part of the profession's responsibility to protect Albertans during the pandemic, and that all regulated members should be fully vaccinated.
In a separate letter Tuesday, the college pleaded with Albertans to get their shots and reminded patients that they should not expect doctors to issue vaccine or mask exemptions.
The CPSA said it could no longer ignore the small number of Albertans "aggressively spreading misinformation, looking for inappropriate exemptions and putting others at risk."
The college is not keen to punish doctors but may have no choice in some cases, CPSA council president Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti said Wednesday.
Defiant doctors are having a direct impact on the fourth wave, he said.
Alberta continues to lead the country by a wide margin in daily new and active COVID cases, and the province is doing all it can to avoid enacting emergency critical triage protocols.
"[This] is the fourth wave of the unvaccinated," Francescutti said. "Unfortunately, there [are] all these conspiracy theories that abound out there that we have to work against."