Manitoba

Doctor suspended for 'deeply troubling' intimate mentorship with medical students

A Winnipeg oncology doctor has been stripped of his medical licence for six months after he tried to engage in a "flagrantly unprofessional" sexual relationship with two of his students at the University of Manitoba.

Relationships evolved into asking for sexual favours from male students

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba has disciplined Dr. Gary Allan Joseph Harding for conduct involving a pair of University of Manitoba medical students. (CBC)

A Winnipeg oncologist has been stripped of his medical licence for six months after he tried to engage in a "flagrantly unprofessional" sexual relationship with two of his students at the University of Manitoba.

Dr. Gary Allan Joseph Harding was found guilty of professional misconduct before an inquiry panel of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, according to a written decision dated last month but posted online on Wednesday. 

He is also ordered to pay $125,000 in investigation costs and can only regain his licence if he undergoes "rigorous and specific" evaluation. He will be prohibited from overseeing or teaching any "medical learners" again.

According to the college's decision, Harding has not practised or taught medicine since 2015.

He did not contest any of the allegations to the inquiry panel, but in psychiatric assessments has denied any sexual touching.

The college's 30-page ruling found that Harding, then an assistant professor and associate dean at the U of M's faculty of medicine, made advances with two male students, which progressed to regular conversation through text messages, invitations to his home and even a paid flight out of the city.

The students said they rebuffed his sexual advances, which included unwanted touching.

Significant damage, distress

They were not named in the document, which described Harding's actions as "gravely serious and deeply troubling."

"Dr. Harding's behaviour towards X and Y was flagrantly unprofessional, egotistical and caused them significant damage and distress."

He resigned from the faculty of medicine in June 2015 in anticipation of the university demanding his dismissal. Soon thereafter, CancerCare Manitoba, an affiliate of the faculty, terminated Harding's employment. He has not practised medicine in Manitoba or any other jurisdiction since. 

In an email, Ginette Bazin, a spokesperson for CancerCare Manitoba, said the organization undertook its own investigation of Harding and determined no patients had been "adversely affected." 

In the fall of 2012, Harding met the student referred to in the documents as X.

That November, Harding offered an informal mentorship through email, where he wrote about the student's personal challenges and medical state. X was hesitant to accept the offer, but he relented.

Their interactions increased significantly, with thousands of text messages exchanged between them in a few months. They had dinners at restaurants, personal visits to each other's residences and Harding provided the student with gifts.

The report said Harding began making sexual references in January 2013, where he asked for oral sex multiple times.

During a trip to New York City that Harding arranged and paid for, he placed his hand under X's waistband, which the student found "profoundly disturbing."

Their number of discussions steadily deteriorated by the summer of 2013. The text messages show an increasing resentment.

At one point, Harding inappropriately accessed the electronic patient records of three patients in X's presence. He pulled up the records to demonstrate that he could tell whether someone was being treated for cancer, the report found. The report also said Harding potentially accessed the health records of a third person.

Help with exams

In June 2013 Harding began talking to one of the students about an upcoming exam. Harding told X he wanted to meet to go over part of the test. "One of the cases might be a bit rare to you [because] you did not have a case on it." Harding also asked X to share the information with another student. 

In August 2013 Harding contacted X again, saying "I didn't hear from you. This weekend we have to talk about one case for prep for the exam." Days later X and Harding met a a café, where Harding brought an outline of the case study to help X study for the exam. 

Later in the month, after the exam, Harding told X "off the record, you both passed," and indicated his assistance helped in the outcome. 

The decision indicates Harding and X's relationship started to break down soon after the exam.

X discloses relationship with Harding

Shortly after, X started having difficulty with his studies, and sought counselling through the med school faculty, X disclosed the relationship with Harding to a counsellor, who encouraged him to report it.

However, according to the report, X indicated he "was very reluctant to do so for various reasons, including a significant concern that his own career would be jeopardized by reporting Dr. Harding to the Faculty."

In December 2014, X began experiencing "significant academic issues," leading to meetings with the associate dean of student affairs in which X disclosed an inappropriate relationship with a faculty member. However, he declined to name Harding.

During a followup meeting, the dean asked X directly whether the relationship was with Harding, which X confirmed. The disclosure triggered an investigation and Harding resigned from the faculty of medicine in June 2015. 

As of May 2018, the report says, X has not completed his studies in medicine, although he remains eligible to do so. 

X calls the events that transpired "extremely traumatic" and says he is still dealing with the impact Harding had on his personal, professional and academic life. 

Regular sleepovers

In late 2013, Harding began an informal mentorship with another student, described simply as Y.

They began confiding personal details of their lives to each other, and Y was introduced to his husband, as well as other family and friends. He was frequently taken to social events and expensive restaurants.

They often watched movies together and sleepovers were held afterwards. On some nights, Y awoke to find Harding's hand on his genitals, which was not consensual.

Y soon told Harding he did not want to sleep over any more but wanted to continue their friendship and remain his mentee. Harding became angry and began to belittle the student. 

He also became irate when Y refused his offer of oral sex during a trip to Vancouver, which he booked despite Y's refusal.

The sleepovers ended by spring 2014 when Y's medical placement took him out of the city.

They stopped spending time together afterwards. By December, Harding approached Y at the medical school and threatened him with a "professional citation," which Harding said could ruin his reputation in the profession. 

Harding admitted his conduct with the students was "horrendous, unprofessional and even harassing" in a psychiatric assessment last year, which showed an element of self-reflection, the evaluation ruled.

The inquiry board also found that Harding prescribed drugs to X and Y without supplying proper documentation. 

Could practise medicine again

In an emailed statement, Anna Ziomek, the registrar of the College of Surgeons and Physicians of Manitoba, said "the decision of the Inquiry Panel in this case reflects the extremely serious nature of the misconduct of Dr. Harding and the important role that the College can and has played in protecting the public."

The statement goes on to say Harding "will not return to practice until he has satisfied the College's Investigation Committee that he has received psychiatric and/or psychological counselling to overcome the problems that may have caused or contributed to the his misconduct."

Ziomek says that if Harding returns to practice, it will be under "rigorous and specific conditions." She also commended the two students, X and Y, for coming forward. 

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.