B.C. doctors urge action on colleague spreading COVID-19 misinformation

Late last year, Dr. Michael Vance received a letter from a fellow physician accusing B.C. health officials of “terrorizing the general populace” with public health measures related to COVID-19.

Dr. Stephen Malthouse, a family doctor on Denman Island whose musings on the pandemic have gone viral in conspiracy-minded circles, urged his colleagues to “stand up and speak out” against restrictions meant to control the spread of COVID-19. 

Malthouse had attached a copy of a widely circulated open letter he’d written in October, which claims the virus is no more deadly than the flu.

Vance, a family doctor in Nelson, was appalled.

“We’re getting it at our office where we’re under stress and we’re working and busy and dealing with COVID for the past year. It’s a slap in the face to see these conspiracy theories,” he said.

Vance was so upset, he filed a complaint in December with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., writing that he has a professional duty to report doctors who pose a danger to the public. He called for Malthouse to be stripped of his licence.

“All it really was was an essay full of lies,” Vance said of the letter, noting that the sources Malthouse cites include YouTube videos and anti-vaccine websites.

Vance is one of four B.C. physicians who’ve spoken with us about filing complaints against Malthouse related to his writings. All of them say they’re frustrated with the lack of concrete action they’ve seen from the college.

“He’s still an active member of my college, which is pretty embarrassing for me. If you’re practicing medicine and you’re a doctor, you shouldn’t be able to be doing this,” Vance said.

College spokesperson Susan Prins wrote in an email that she is unable to discuss complaint proceedings because of privacy laws. However, we have independently confirmed that an investigator has been assigned to look into complaints against Malthouse.

Earlier this month, the college issued a joint statement with the First Nations Health Authority, warning that physicians who put the public at risk by sharing anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-physical distancing and anti-lockdown misinformation could face investigation and possible discipline.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the college has received 30 complaints related to COVID-19 misinformation, Prins said, but they “may take some time to resolve.”

Malthouse did not return phone calls from us or respond to questions sent by email, but in the past he has defended his statements and said the college should be reaching out to doctors with opposing views on the pandemic.

He told The Canadian Press this week, “We really need to have scientific debate about these topics rather than just having rules and regulations and attempts just to make doctors follow the policy alone.”

‘It devalues what other physicians are doing’

In recent months, Malthouse has spoken at multiple anti-mask rallies, appeared in videos downplaying the severity of the pandemic and been the subject of glowing writeups in the far-right media.

The letter to his colleagues, dated Nov. 1, denies the existence of a second wave of infections. It was written at the start of a steep spike in daily case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 — within six weeks, an average of 19 people in B.C. were dying of the disease every day.

The letter suggested that COVID-related restrictions have caused more deaths than the disease. He correctly pointed out that drug poisoning deaths have spiked, but also repeated a popular but false claim that suicides have “increased dramatically.”

According to the latest numbers from the B.C. Coroners Service, the number of suicides from January to August of 2020 was actually about seven per cent lower than the same period in 2019. Researchers say similar patterns were seen in the other western provinces.

Like Vance, Dr. Jennifer Cochran of Rossland complained to the college after receiving Malthouse’s letter. 

She spoke to CBC News just before doing her nightly rounds on the COVID-19 ward at Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital on Wednesday, and said she’s “really disappointed” at how the college has responded.

“He’s not only giving this misinformation to patients and the public but to colleagues. It devalues what other physicians are doing during this pandemic,” she said.

“It’s saying, if you were an intelligent physician, you’d know that COVID was a hoax.”

Letters to the editor draw more complaints

Other physicians discovered Malthouse’s musings in different ways.

Dr. Charles King, a family physician in South Surrey, has alerted the college to letters Malthouse wrote to the editor of The Islands Grapevine, a newsletter serving Denman and Hornby islands.

The Grapevine’s letters section has recently featured several lengthy submissions from Malthouse describing COVID-19 vaccines as dangerous and experimental, and downplaying the severity of the disease.

Malthouse’s letters quote sources including the far-right news website Breitbart, the libertarian institute founded by three-time fringe U.S. presidential candidate Ron Paul, and a website called HumansAreFree.com that runs headlines like “Sixth man to walk on the moon: Aliens prevented a nuclear war on Earth to ensure our existence.”

Dr. Stephen Malthouse appeared at a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Duncan, B.C., in November, referring to the disease as a ‘so-called pandemic.’ (YouTube)

King said he has spoken to college representatives two or three times about Malthouse’s letters, but he’s been disappointed by the response.

“I thought they really were not responding very briskly,” King said.

“I was frustrated as a practitioner who spends most of my working life these days working to educate patients to get the vaccine and get us all out of this dreadful pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Charles Hoffe of Lytton, who wrote an open letter falsely claiming that vaccines are more dangerous than COVID-19, is no longer working in emergency services at the town’s  St. Bartholomew’s Health Centre, Interior Health has confirmed.

The college’s warning about spreading COVID-19 misinformation comes more than a year after B.C.’s regulators for chiropractors and naturopaths both issued notices with similar messages in March 2020. 

The College of Chiropractors says it has investigated five complaints about registrants sharing misinformation or promoting unproven treatments for COVID-19, and each of those has resulted in a reprimand and a fine of $250-$700. Meanwhile, the College of Naturopathic Physicians has received just one complaint, which is still under investigation.

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