Death threats, assaults against doctors surge in Manitoba, survey suggests

Nearly six in 10 Manitoba doctors have experienced incidents of abuse in the past month, adding to the stress and burnout that was already reaching concerning levels, says a provincial physicians’ organization.

A survey, released Monday and conducted in November, suggests that 57 per cent of doctors had experienced incidents of mistreatment in the previous month, including verbal abuse, threats, bullying and physical assault. More than half of the incidents appeared to be linked to the pandemic in some way.

“These are alarming statistics … and we are worried about what they mean to recruitment and retention across this province,” said Dr. Kristjan Thompson, president of Doctors Manitoba, which represents more than 3,000 physicians in the province and conducted the survey.

During a news conference on Monday, Thompson made a public appeal for kindness and respect for all health-care workers “trying to provide care under very difficult conditions.”

“COVID-19 has been hard for everyone. Whether you are frustrated with pandemic restrictions or you are facing long wait times to get a medical test or surgery, please don’t take these frustrations out on doctors,” he said.

“They care about your well-being and they are advocating for you each and every day.”

Nearly 60 per cent of the 403 doctors who completed the survey said incidents are occurring more frequently now than a year ago.

WATCH | Doctors speak about incidents of abuse:

Death threats, assaults against doctors surge in Manitoba

9 hours ago

Duration 2:04

Nearly six in 10 Manitoba doctors have experienced incidents of abuse in the past month, adding to the stress and burnout that was already reaching concerning levels, says a provincial physicians’ organization. 2:04

Most incidents occurred in doctors’ offices or hospitals, though some occurred on social media, in public places and at physicians’ homes, survey responses said.

They also appeared to occur more frequently among physicians who are women, Black, Indigenous or other people of colour, working in family medicine or working in rural communities.

Dr. Don Klassen, a family doctor in Winkler and at Boundary Trails Health Centre, said he has heard from several physicians who are considering early retirement or relocation.

“In my 40-plus years of medical practice, I have not witnessed the degree of mistreatment referred to in this survey until relatively recently. Until two years ago, I might have said it was impossible that we’d be having this press conference calling for respect and civility,” Klassen said.

Examples of verbal abuse given in survey responses include people accusing doctors of somehow benefiting from the pandemic or of breaking the Nuremberg code — a set of ethical guidelines governing medical experimentation introduced in response to Nazi atrocities — and hoping they are executed.

Multiple physicians said they’ve received death threats, others have been spat on, faced vandalism and graffiti at their offices, or been blocked in examination rooms by angry patients, the survey report says.

Pamphlets that criticize vaccination policies have also been left on staff cars at clinics or delivered to homes, the report says.

Doctors have reported people expressing frustration with vaccination requirements, with diagnostic or surgery delays, with restrictions on visitations or about the lack of vaccine availability.

“We get it, we’re frustrated too,” Thompson said. “But as physicians, we are in our patients’ corner. We are on your team.”

That sentiment was echoed by Klassen, who said “we’re all humans with families and lives. We experience the same stresses related to the pandemic.

“We all want this pandemic to end. We are, and we need to be, in this together.”

Thompson said many doctors are more concerned about their colleagues, such as nurses and reception staff, than themselves. Those front-line staffers have had to endure much of the vitriol, he said.

Doctors are encouraged by the federal government’s passage last week of Bill C-3, legislation aimed at protecting health-care workers and patients from threats, violence and harassment, Thompson said.

Doctors Manitoba joined the Canadian Medical Association in pressing for the legislation following a number of incidents and protests earlier this year.

The new legislation amends the Criminal Code of Canada to make it illegal for people to intimidate health-care workers, impede access to medical facilities or intimidate people accessing health-care services, including COVID-19 vaccinations. The new offences carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

“We are also calling on the provincial government and health system leaders to reinforce the need for respect and safety in medical facilities,” Thompson said.

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