Doctor's Fort Chip cancer numbers disputed

Alberta's College of Physicians and Surgeons has cited "inaccurate or untruthful claims" by a doctor who raised the alarm over what he believed was a high incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan.

'Inaccurate or untruthful claims'

Dr. John O'Connor, shown here during a visit to Edmonton in March, says he plans to resume his practice in Alberta. ((CBC))
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta has concluded an investigation into complaints against a former Fort Chipewyan physician who raised concerns of what he believed was a high incidence of cancer in the community.

According to the investigation report obtained by CBC News, the college found that Dr. John O'Connor "made a number of inaccurate or untruthful claims with respect to the number of patients with confirmed cancers and the ages of patients dying from cancer."

The college also found O'Connor failed to provide public health officials and the Alberta Cancer Board with information about the identities and clinical circumstances of patients that he had diagnosed with cancer in a timely fashion and that he did not respond to "multiple requests" for information after he went public with his concerns about local cancer rates.

However, a decision was made not to penalize O'Connor because, according to the report, "neither the CPSA [College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta] nor the complainants were of the view that imposing a penalty or some other punishment on Dr. O'Connor met the public interest."

Reached in Nova Scotia Monday, O'Connor said he was shocked the report had been leaked to the media and said he does not agree with the college's findings.

"Since Friday, my lawyer has written to the college, saying that my position and the evidence that I've offered is as it is, and I certainly I do not agree that I didn't, you know, provide accurate data and didn't respond in a timely fashion. I did," he said. "And so the college is aware of that."

O'Connor admits that early on he was mistaken in saying he had "diagnosed" the cancer cases and said he made every effort afterwards to correct that statement, by saying he "strongly clinically suspected" them.

"Simply, family physicians do not diagnose cancer, and that's something I've repeated endlessly since then," he said, adding he referred the patients to specialists.

Health Canada MDs complained

The investigation was launched after three physicians with Health Canada laid four complaints with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in January 2007, after O'Connor went public with his concerns about cancer in the tiny northern Alberta community.

In 2006, O'Connor reported six suspected cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of bile duct cancer.

Of those six cases, two were confirmed in the study released in February by the former Alberta Cancer Board, which became part of Alberta Health Services in 2008. Three other cases were other forms of cancer, and one was not cancer.

In that study, 51 cancers in 47 people were found in the remote community, 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, between 1995 and 2006. This was a dozen more than the 39 cancers that would normally be expected, and the incidence of some cancers warranted more followup, the report said.

Physician 'advocacy is supported'

The College of Physicians and Surgeons said O'Connor's decision to make his concerns public was not an issue.

"Neither the complainants nor the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta wishes to suggest that Dr. O'Connor acted improperly when he raised concerns about the incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan based on his observations," the report says.

"Indeed, such advocacy on behalf of the community of Fort Chipewyan is supported. The message that Dr. O'Connor and others may take from this review is the need for advocacy to be fair, truthful, balanced and respectful."

A couple of years ago, O'Connor left Alberta in frustration and is practising medicine in Nova Scotia. On Friday, he told CBC Yellowknife that the college had closed the file, which led to news reports that he had been cleared.

One of the Health Canada physicians who laid the complaint sounded pleased with the findings.

"Myself and my specialist physician colleagues have been dragged through the mud and been accused of conspiring with big oil, and nothing could be further from the truth," Dr. Hakique Virani said.

"We're just trying to do our jobs as public health specialists and get to the bottom of something that could have been a concern."

Virani is the deputy medical officer of health for Health Canada in the Alberta region.

In the leaked report, the college said it would have preferred to have the resolution of the matter released publicly, but could not because all parties could not reach a "consensus as to the content of a public statement."