5 Dec 2022

Doctor slammed for texting 600 patients misinformation about Covid-19 jab

5:30 pm on 5 December 2022

By Rachel Thomas of Stuff

Pfizer vaccine

File photo. Photo: 123RF

A patient watchdog has condemned the actions of a GP who sent an unsolicited text to about 600 patients saying he did not support the Covid-19 vaccine and directing them to a website containing misinformation.

The Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) found the doctor in breach of standards in place to protect the public by expressing his own, unbalanced opinions. It recommended the GP apologise to each patient who complained and that the GP's competency be carefully assessed if he's ever permitted to return to practice.

While the GP is not named in the decision, former Plimmerton GP Matt Shelton was suspended by the Medical Council after texting patients in August 2021 saying he did not support the vaccination of children, and pregnant and fertile women. He recently won an appeal against the decision, but does not hold a current practising certificate.

Stuff approached Shelton at his Khandallah home on Monday, but he declined to comment.

The HDC decision, released on Monday, assessed 11 complaints from individual patients about the GP's actions.

"The GP used the medical centre's patient management system to access patient contact details in order to send an unsolicited text message to around 600 patients on his patient list (including casual patients), who had not sought his opinion and were not necessarily making a choice about the vaccine or giving informed consent," Commissioner Morag McDowell said.

The text, outlined in the decision, said: "Hi [name], your GP [Dr A] here. I cannot in conscience support Covid vaccination of, particularly, children, and pregnant and fertile women, from my assessment of current risks and benefits, best explained at [a website] All to make their own best decision."

The website acronym stands for New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out With Science - a group of doctors, dentists and other medical professionals who object to the Covid-19 response.

The text continued: "I apologise for any distress. My views are my own, not the consensus.

"[The medical centre] will continue with rollout invites. Email, do not ring, to [email address]. With gratitude, and respect for the informed decision this has to be. Do not reply by text."

McDowell said the information in the text message was not sufficiently balanced to enable patients to make an informed choice on vaccination.

"Informed consent is vital, and indeed it is the cornerstone of the Code [of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights]," she said.

Complaints from patients about the doctor made it clear many found his actions distressing, McDowell said. "In my view, there is a power imbalance in the doctor-patient relationship, which means that patients are likely to be influenced by advice given by their doctor," McDowell said.

In a response to the commissioner, the GP acknowledged his concerns were not widely shared by other clinicians but felt it was his job to "fill in the gaps" for his patients.

"I did not want their decision about whether to get the vaccine to be rushed, coerced or inadequate. Making sure my patients were in a position to make an informed decision regarding the vaccine was my priority, whilst accepting risks of comeback," the GP told the commissioner.

He said as a result, he had prepared a "hastily contrived text message which has come at a huge financial, personal and professional cost".

McDowell accepted the GP was entitled to hold and express opinions regarding the Covid-19 vaccine, subject to maintaining legal, professional, ethical and other relevant standards. But the manner in which the GP expressed his opinions was a breach of the Code, McDowell said.

His actions also went against the Medical Council standards, McDowell said. He also failed to document the information he provided during the in-person consultations.

In the event he is granted another practising certificate, the Medical Council should undertake a competence assessment and require him to practise with conditions that address the issues in her report, McDowell said.

She said he should apologise to each of the individual patients who raised concerns about his behaviour. Should he return to medical practice, he should undertake training on professional and ethical standards, she recommended.

The medical centre he worked at when he sent the text should also consider developing guidelines on the use of its patient lists and patient management system, McDowell said.

- This story was originally published on Stuff

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