N.B. doctor suspended 9 months for 'sexually motivated' comments to girl in U.K.

A Saint John family doctor, found guilty of misconduct by a medical tribunal in the United Kingdom for making "sexually motivated" comments to someone who identified themself as a 13-year-old girl, has been suspended from practising in New Brunswick for nine months effective immediately. 

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick reached its disciplinary decision regarding Dr. Hafeez Awan's medical licence on Friday afternoon.

The provincial regulatory body believed it was the appropriate sanction for Awan, based on a review of the file from the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in the U.K., said college registrar Dr. Ed Schollenberg.

Awan has been practising in the province for two years, said Schollenberg.

Schollenberg said he didn't know how many patients Awan has, but said the Saint John Regional Hospital, operated by Horizon Health Network, is now looking for a replacement during his suspension. 

Awan could not immediately be reached for comment. A voicemail at his Rothesay Avenue office said the office would be closed from Nov. 6 to Nov. 29.

He was suspended on Nov. 15 by the U.K. tribunal for nine months for his misconduct, which occurred in January 2016, nearly two years before he moved to Canada. He worked at a medical centre in Leeds and an urgent-care centre in Wakefield at the time.

The person he communicated with through the online chat room Lycos, text messages and the messenger app WhatsApp was not actually a 13-year-old girl, but a police officer in a covert investigation, the U.K. file shows.

Although the tribunal found no "explicit sexual remarks" made by Awan, it concluded his actions were sexually motivated.

"It could find no other credible explanation as to why a middle-aged man would continue to engage with Person A as soon as she confirmed her age as 13," which was at the beginning of their first online chat on Jan. 5, 2016, according to the documents.

Instead of ending the conversation, Awan "instigated" a conversation about hugging and was "persistent" in trying to communicate with "Person A" through other platforms, including trying to arrange to speak with her on the telephone when an adult would not be present, the tribunal found.

"The tribunal did not consider it likely that these were the actions of somebody who was not trying to initiate a relationship of some kind with Person A," the decision states.

Hug emoji, text kisses

Transcripts of the messages entered as evidence show Awan, using the username Medic333, asked Person A, "r u single?" When she said she was 13, he replied, "ok … r u at school?"

Person A: nah shud be

Medic333: lol ok

Awan, who had identified himself as a doctor, also sent Person A a hug emoji, a heart emoji, and kisses at the end of a text message, according to the documents.

Medic333: mwah hugs for u

Person A: thats nice I need some hugs

Medic333: i want hugs too

'is ur mum there?'

Awan then asked Person A for her telephone number, saying he wanted to call her and "listen to ur voice."

Person A: i dunt mind but dunt want u calling when my mum is ere

Medic333: i know what u mean

Medic 333: is ur mum there now?

Person A: no but my auntie is down stairs

'Illegal' to meet

On Jan. 21, 2016, in a Whatsapp conversation, Awan told Person A they wouldn't be able to meet until she was 16, "as it will be illegal," but that they could still chat.

In his evidence, Awan said he never intended to meet Person A in person. "I have never met someone in person following online communications. This was never my aim, it was just to relax me," he said.

Asked about his use of the word "illegal," Awan said it was "a poor choice of English as it is not his first language." 

"He stated that a female is competent when 16 years old. At 16 years old they can make decisions for themselves."

Awan said he believed the chat room was for adults only and that Person A was lying when she said she was 13.

"Having used chat rooms for so long I never take a profile at face value, rarely do people portray their true selves and this adds to the escapism factor, it's not real, you do not know who are you are talking to and it does not matter because noting is taken seriously," he said.

In addition, because their initial conversation took place between 11:50 a.m. and 2:11 p.m., he didn't believe she was 13 because she should have been in school, he said.

He didn't challenge Person A about her age, he said, because he didn't want to appear "impolite."

'Predatory behaviour'

The tribunal said it didn't consider Awan's explanations "credible."

"Whilst the tribunal accepted that there was no victim in this case, it has found that Dr Awan made inappropriate and sexually motivated remarks towards Person A, who he believed to be a 13 year old girl."

Although the conversations did not take place in a clinical setting, the tribunal found Awan breached his position of trust and that his conduct was "unbefitting of a registered doctor."

A lawyer on behalf of the U.K. General Medical Council had recommended the tribunal strip Awan of his ability to practise.

He argued Awan's conduct amounted to "predatory behaviour," an offence of a sexual nature and that he had abused his position of trust as a doctor.

The public's confidence would be undermined if Awan's name wasn't erased from the medical register, the lawyer had argued.

'Lower end of spectrum'

But Awan's lawyer submitted his behaviour was at the "lower end of the spectrum" and that Awan had demonstrated "some insight albeit only partial."

Awan, who graduated from medical school in Pakistan in 2000 and completed his general practitioner training in the U.K. in 2008, had an otherwise unblemished record, and has continued to practise since 2016 "without any further issues," he said.

In his evidence, Awan pointed to an argument he'd had with his brother over the phone just prior to his first online chat with Person A.

The argument was about 2014 a trip home to Pakistan, when he was violently assaulted and robbed.

Awan blamed his brother's wife for the attack because she had told people he would be visiting, he told the tribunal. He's still affected by the injuries he suffered, he said.

After the telephone argument, Awan visited the internet chat room as a way to "de-stress," according to the documents.

He might have ended the conversation with Person A immediately upon learning she was 13 had he not been suffering from "brain fog," he said.

The tribunal, however, pointed out there was no evidence Awan was "pre-occupied" when their second conversation took place.

No expression of remorse

Some of the mitigating factors considered by the tribunal included the fact there was no evidence Awan committed a sexual offence, he did not engage in "a more sexually explicit dialogue" with Person A even though there were opportunities to do so, and he has takes steps to ensure the misconduct is not repeated, including discontinuing his use of social media.

Among the aggravating factors, Awan has not expressed any remorse and has "demonstrated little insight into the effect his conduct, including revealing his identity as a doctor, had on the public trust and confidence in the medical profession," according to the tribunal.

The purpose of a sanction, it said, is to protect patients and maintain public confidence — not to be punitive, although it may have a punitive effect, such as a suspension, which prevents a doctor from practising and, therefore, from earning a living.

The tribunal concluded a nine-month suspension would allow Awan to "further reflect on the seriousness of his misconduct and the impact it had on public trust and confidence in the medical profession" and "send a signal to the doctor, the profession and the public about what is regarded as behaviour unbefitting of a registered doctor."

It also felt the public interest would be best served by "not depriving the public of an otherwise competent doctor," it said.