It was a Tuesday night in January in Terrace, in northwestern B.C., and inside a small community hall, a crowd had gathered for a talk on COVID-19.
The men on stage were Dr. Stephen Malthouse and Dr. Charles Hoffe — family doctors in B.C. and the main speakers in a series of events called Doctors on Tour. The speaking tour, in which the two share their opinions about the pandemic, public health restrictions and vaccines, has stopped in more than a dozen communities across the province in December and January.
Both doctors hold active medical licenses and are in good standing, but several B.C. physicians have filed complaints against them with the provincial College of Physicians and Surgeons, accusing them of spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
Hoffe, in an open letter last spring posted on the website of the anti-vaccine group Vaccine Choice Canada, claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine is more dangerous than COVID-19 itself.
Malthouse, who is based on Denman Island, has appeared at multiple anti-mask rallies, and what appears to be his signature was allegedly found on a fake vaccine exemption linked to a B.C.-based website offering exemptions. That website is now under investigation by the Chilliwack RCMP.
But that Tuesday night, Malthouse and Hoffe had the attention of about 150 people in person, and more online.
“Bonnie Henry is out to kill us all,” said Malthouse as he began his presentation, referring to B.C.’s provincial health officer.
The crowd laughed.
It’s a familiar refrain for Vancouver pediatrician Alistair McAlpine, who says he’s been aware his colleagues have been spreading misinformation online for months.
McAlpine says he is one of 13 doctors who filed a complaint against Hoffe with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. in December 2021. He says the college acknowledged it received the complaint but has said nothing more about it since.
“It’s a sort of dual disappointment,” McAlpine said. “Disappointment in my colleagues, but disappointment in the bodies that should be regulating them.”
The college has publicly warned physicians against “sharing anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-physical distancing and anti-lockdown misinformation” at risk of being disciplined, but McAlpine and others say the warning lacks teeth unless it’s backed by swift action.
Details of investigation protected by B.C. privacy laws
Details of any of the college’s investigations are protected by B.C. privacy laws. If an investigation results in disciplinary action, information is disclosed to the public and remains on public record, the college said in a statement to CBC News.
The college would not confirm it’s investigating Malthouse or Hoffe, and there is currently no public record of disciplinary measures against them.
However, evidence that the college investigated a number of complaints by fellow physicians against Malthouse emerged last year in court filings.
In a petition for judicial review filed in B.C. Supreme Court on June 24, 2021, Malthouse acknowledged that the college attempted to reprimand him for making public statements that it said violated professional standards and posed a “risk to the public,” and he asked the court to quash that reprimand.
According to that petition, the college told him in a May 17, 2021, letter that he would be reprimanded under the Health Professions Act and forbidden from speaking on issues related to COVID-19.
The college did tell CBC it was aware of online videos showing the Doctors on Tour presentations and that the videos have been passed on to its practice investigations and complaints department “for further review.”
Malthouse’s lawyers argued that the college’s attempted action violated his right to free speech and had nothing to do with his medical practice but rather with his comments on the government’s COVID measures.
The matter is still before the courts.
In Hoffe’s case, indications that the college is investigating came last November, when the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a legal organization that has also defended the organizers of the truck protest in Ottawa, published a letter in which it said it is representing Hoffe as he is being investigated by the college for “allegedly promoting ‘vaccine hesitancy.'”
Complaints usually trigger preliminary review
Malthouse would not comment on the college investigation when CBC approached him in Terrace.
Hoffe replied to questions on the college’s investigation into the complaints against him by saying he has many patients who depend on him and that he continues to provide health care for them over the phone as his family practice burned down in the Lytton fire on June 30.
Any member of the public can make a complaint against a college registrant. Each complaint triggers a preliminary review before the college contacts the physician under investigation for a response, according to the college website.
The Health Professions Act does empower college inquiry committees to take interim action while an investigation is ongoing by imposing restrictions or suspending a doctor’s registration. But that can only be used as an “extraordinary remedy,” says the college, “to protect the public based on a real risk.”
McAlpine says he acknowledges the college has protocols to follow, but he says potentially dangerous theories and misinformation being circulated during a pandemic must qualify as a risk to the public.
“If this isn’t an extraordinary time and if these doctors are not directly placing the public at risk, then I don’t know what is,” he said.
“The fundamental mandate of the college is to protect the public, and in my opinion, they’re simply not doing that.”
‘Hearing both sides’
The speaking tour is promoted by a group founded last year called FrontLine Canada, which purports on its website to represent “frontline workers who were being forced to inject the experimental COVID ‘vaccination.'”
It made stops in 14 towns in B.C. during December and January, predominantly in rural communities in the Interior and northwest. Towns such as Terrace have a vaccination rate as high as B.C.’s average, with 85 per cent of those over the age of 12 vaccinated with two doses, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control regional surveillance dashboard.
CBC News attended two of the Doctors on Tour talks in Terrace and spoke to several audience members.
Paula Morrison used to work with people with disabilities in Terrace before she lost her job last October when it became mandatory for B.C. health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
She sat through the doctors’ three-hour presentation and called the talk “excellent” and “informative.” She said some people gravitate toward the doctors because they’re unsure about getting vaccinated.
Lauralee Davis brought her 13-year-old daughter. She says her family has had COVID-19, but they “came out fine” and don’t want to get the vaccine. She, like others in attendance, talked about the importance of “hearing both sides” and learning about “alternative treatments” for the virus.
“I think we all need to know what we’re doing when we make our medical choices and how it might affect us or might not,” Davis said.
‘An impact on beliefs and behaviours’
Tim Caulfied, a law professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and Canada Research Chair in Health, Law and Policy, who is known for debunking pseudoscience, watched an online presentation by the doctors in Terrace.
He said several of the claims in the presentation were wrong, such as when Malthouse told the audience that ivermectin, an antiparasitic agent, could help prevent and treat COVID-19.
There is no good evidence to support that claim, said Caulfield, who specializes in medical misinformation.
“If ivermectin really was as effective as these people suggest, we would know,” he said. “We would have the clinical data to back it up, and it just doesn’t exist right now.”
Health Canada has issued warnings against using ivermectin and says there’s no clinical evidence to suggest it prevents or treats COVID-19. The agency also notes that there have been cases of people ingesting high concentrations of a veterinary version of the product, intended for horses, which can cause serious health problems, including vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and even death.
Caulfied says he can see why people could be misled by a “convincing” presentation by two registered physicians who emphasize a small set of data to support their arguments while ignoring the large body of evidence to the contrary.
Presenting data in this way can have a significant impact on people who may be weighing the risks and benefits of getting the vaccine for themselves or for a member of their family, says Caulfied.
“We know this is dangerous,” he said.
“We know that misinformation can have an impact on beliefs and behaviours.”
Claims about vaccine harm prompted complaint
Among the claims made by Malthouse at the Terrace event was that the ingredients of the vaccines approved for use in Canada are unknown. Ingredients for all authorized vaccines in Canada are listed on the government’s public health website.
Another claim, this one made by Hoffe, is that a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine actually makes the virus’s symptoms worse when someone is infected than if someone hadn’t been vaccinated at all.
That flies in the face of widespread vaccine monitoring across the country and is what prompted McAlpine and others to ask the college to take urgent action against Hoffe.
Courts are a long shot, lawyer says
McAlpine says the mechanisms of professional oversight are outdated and inappropriate in light of social media and a fast-moving public health emergency. He says he and other colleagues are looking at ways to hold the college to account.
“Who guards the guardians? Who monitors the guardians when the guardians are asleep at the wheel?”
Courts might be one option, but that’s a long shot, according to Danny Kastner, an employment lawyer at Kastner Lam LLP in Toronto.
“Those processes are long; they’re expensive; they’re challenging,” he said. “The court does not lightly interfere with the internal regulatory workings of these colleges.”
In interviews, both doctors denied they are deceiving people and say their claims are based on research they found. Informed medical decisions, such as getting the vaccine, cannot be made through “censored” media, said Malthouse.
“I will never deceive people,” said Hoffe. “I do what I do because I love my patients.”