Mom of 2 worried about loss of suspended Saint John family doctor

Rebecca Walton, 27, of Saint John, has three prescriptions for depression and anxiety she needs filled, and her youngest son needs two vaccinations and a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

But Walton and her two sons, aged six and two, are among the roughly 1,500 patients left without a family doctor last week when Dr. Hafeez Awan was suspended for nine months by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick for professional misconduct.

And no one seems to be able to tell Walton with certainty whether Awan is ever coming back.

Walton says she's frustrated and worried about the prospects of finding a new family doctor.

"I am concerned about being stuck on the waiting list," she said. 

The Saint John health region has about 6,000 people on the wait list for a family doctor. Across New Brunswick, about 34,000 people waiting.

Awan was suspended by the college for making "sexually motivated" online comments to a police officer who was posing as a 13-year-old girl in January 2016, when he worked in the United Kingdom.

The college adopted the same sanction imposed by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in the U.K.

Walton says she was "really disappointed and upset" when she heard about Awan's conduct.

"I kind of felt violated myself," she said. "I just felt kind of like I lost trust in a medical professional."

Awan could not be reached for comment, but a letter addressed to patients, posted on his office door says: "It has been a pleasure to serve as your physician and I want to thank you for the trust and confidence you have placed in me."

A sign says his family practice is "now closed" and all patient files have been removed from the premises.

Submitted by Rebecca Walton

Patients are advised they have to contact Toronto-based DOCUdavit Solutions to obtain their medical records and pay a maximum $80 each for the first two patients and $50 for each additional patient, plus taxes and shipping.

Walton, a full-time mom, says it's an added expense she and her fiancé didn't need at Christmas.

She says she heard patients would have until Friday to pick up their files from Awan's office, but when she rushed out on Wednesday afternoon with her sons in tow, she found the Rothesay Avenue office closed and about 20 other patients gathered around. 

"They said that they weren't handing them out anymore."

Police called to office

About 30 minutes before Walton arrived, there was an altercation between an ill-tempered patient and Awan's secretary and the secretary had called the police, according to the other patients.

By late Wednesday afternoon, Awan's office voicemail message said: "Due to harassment and the police being called, no records will be given out." The message directs patients to contact DOCUdavit.

"Have a good day. Bye."

Saint John Police Force spokesman Jim Hennessy confirmed police responded to a call for service at an east side office on Wednesday.

"By the time officers arrived at the office, the situation was resolved," he said in an email to CBC News on Thursday.

There is no further investigation, he added.

Authorities in the dark

The college has received "hundreds" of calls from Awan's patients, but has not yet heard from Awan regarding his intentions after his nine-month suspension, said registrar Dr. Ed Schollenberg.

If Awan is permanently closing his practice, he would have to advise the college at some point, he said.

"We gave [Awan's patients] the best info we knew about records and told them to go on [the] waiting list," Schollenberg said in an email.

"I have no idea what else we could [do]. And when I've asked people for suggestions, no one has any."

Schollenberg did point out the region has lost other doctors suddenly in the past for many reasons, including illness and death. Those doctors' patients were in the same position as Awan's patients, but "most" of them "eventually" found a new doctor, he said.

"But it will not happen right away in our current micromanagement of physician numbers," he added.

Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd.

Schollenberg said he has also tried to assure Awan's patients their "angst about their records is misplaced."

"Any new physician will have access, through the hospital systems, to [the] most significant info such as reports and results. Pharmacies easily provide a list of current medications. And we still expect physicians to take a history," he said.

The Horizon Health Network has not received confirmation from Awan about his intentions either, but has heard from patients who have "expressed concern" his practice is closing, said spokesperson Kris McDavid.

"Our role in this matter is limited to trying to identify a locum, or another physician, to fill in for Dr. Awan during his suspension," McDavid said in an emailed statement.

"We are continuing to monitor the situation and remain hopeful a solution can be found so Dr. Awan's patients are not displaced."

Roger Cosman/CBC

Walton says she hopes her fiancé's doctor will agree to take on their sons, Hunter and Archer Camick, and ideally her as well.

In the meantime, she's waiting for DOCUdavit to respond to a voicemail she left on Wednesday about getting their records, she said. 

On Friday, the document management's company's voice mailbox for patients seeking their medical records was full.

Sid Soil, an owner and the vice-president of business development, said he has been out of the office because a family member is hospitalized, but that he'd look into the matter.

DOCUdavit has fielded a "substantial number" of requests from Awan's patients, both over the phone and online, said Soil. Awan had between 1,400 and 1,500 patients, he said.

Nobody will ever not get access to their medical records due to the fee. - Sid Soil, DOCUdavit Solutions

"I know people get very worried about this type of thing. But we will make sure that everyone gets access to their records," said Soil. "They shouldn't panic."

DOCUdavit has provided the service for "hundreds" of doctors across Canada, he said. On average, only 15 to 17 per cent of patients request their records.

Those who are interested simply have to fill out a detailed request form to confirm their identity and can obtain either a paper or electronic copy of their file for the stated fees, said Soil.

"And anyone for who the fee is more than they can afford, all they have to do is tell us and we will make adjustments as required for that individual patient," he said. "Nobody will ever not get access to their medical records due to the fee."