Doctor breached HDC code by handing false anti-vax information to patient

The female patient was given a document of anti-vaccine misinformation by her doctor.
The female patient was given a document of anti-vaccine misinformation by her doctor. Photo credit: Getty Images

A doctor who shared anti-vaccination misinformation with her patient has been found in breach of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights.

The Health and Disability Commission (HDC) released the findings of the investigation into the 2021 case on Monday.

The female patient was isolating at home with COVID-19 while her partner remained in a Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facility.

The woman received a call from a contracted doctor who said it was her first day working with the MIQ team.

The woman discussed her symptoms with the doctor before she was emailed a document called 'Guide to COVID Early Treatment' where she was instructed by the doctor to refer to the guidelines on a specific page. 

The document suggested the vaccines were experimental and there was no evidence to suggest they reduced the risk of COVID-19. 

The document suggested alternative treatments and medications outside those recommended by the clinical standards operating in New Zealand, suggesting the patient take zinc sulfate, vitamin D, vitamin C and antibiotics.

The Ministry of Health noted none of the suggested medications were supported by evidence at the time as being treatments for COVID-19. 

The woman, who had two children, was shocked to find the document listed risks, side effects and complications of the vaccine, including abnormal bleeding, menstrual problems in girls, testicular pain, miscarriages and deaths of mothers.

However, none of these side effects were included in the Medsafe data sheet for the main COVID-19 vaccine in New Zealand.

HDC found the document also incorrectly claimed genetic material and spike proteins generated by the vaccine would "penetrate the ovaries, testes, brain, spinal cord, nervous system, heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, and cross the placenta in pregnant women".

"Increasing numbers of physicians and scientists report vaccinated patients exposed to the virus again are having worse illness than if they had never been vaccinated," the document falsely claimed.

The Commissioner found the document could easily be interpreted as discouraging people from getting the vaccine and contained misinformation.

The woman expressed concerns about the impact of this information being shared with vulnerable communities by a medical professional.

"This is scary to think this information has been sent out to some of the most vulnerable people who should be getting vaccinated to fight off this virus," the woman told HDC.

On the same day the patient was handed the document containing misinformation, she complained to a number of organisations. In response, her doctor apologised for "any unintended distress" but claimed her accusations were "completely false".

"I believe you are not aware of the consequences of your complaint as I regard it as highly defamatory," the doctor wrote. "Your complaint suggests that I am spreading the antivaccination message."

The patient then told HDC that she felt bullied and intimidated by the doctor's response to her complaint.

When HDC investigated, the doctor claimed the document was sent to her by a senior GP colleague who had prescribed the treatments referenced in the document but did not advise who that person was. She also said she was not aware of the full contents of the document.

A statement by the Medical Council of New Zealand (MCNZ) called 'COVID-19 vaccine and your professional responsibility' was issued in April 2021.

"As a health practitioner, you have a role in providing evidence-based advice and information about the COVID-19 vaccination to others," it read.

"As regulators, we respect an individual's right to have their own opinions, but it is our view that there is no place for anti-vaccination messages in professional health practice, nor any promotion of anti-vaccination claims including on social media and advertising by health practitioners."

Health and Disability Commissioner Morag McDowell found the doctor breached professional, legal and ethical standards. 

"Ultimately, I consider the doctor irresponsibly shared anti-vaccination misinformation when she sent the woman the COVID-19 document," McDowell said. "In my view, this amounts to a failure to comply with the MCNZ guidance statement."

McDowell said the doctor's failure to read the document in full did not lessen her responsibility to provide accurate information, share information from public health-approved channels, and to verify the appropriateness of the resource being provided.

She recommended the doctor apologise to the woman, complete HDC's online training modules and be trained on communication and professional standards. 

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