Manitoba chiropractor cleared of misconduct after posting pro-vaccine news story
Public inquiry highlights divide in chiropractic community, experts say
Carolyn Weiss didn't give it much thought when she posted a news article that spoke positively about vaccines on her personal Facebook.
It was January 2021 and COVID-19 vaccines were beginning to be administered across the country, sparking fierce public debate.
Little did the chiropractor based in Selkirk, Man., know that post would be the start of an 18-month ordeal — one that put her career in jeopardy and led to a public inquiry that cost her thousands of dollars in legal fees before she was cleared of all wrongdoing.
All because the articles mentioned the word vaccines.
"I was confused and baffled," Weiss told CBC News. "I posted something that was general health information."
The complaint placed Weiss in the middle of an ongoing divide in the profession over vaccination and what can be said.
A battle in the community
The article she posted by the New York Times was titled "Underselling the Vaccine" and described how experts were being overly cautious when reporting their success rate.
With a master's degree in immunology, Weiss thought the article was interesting and wanted to pass it along to her many Facebook friends, which include immunologists and scientists, she told CBC News.
A fellow chiropractor — whose identity remains a secret to this day — saw it and reported her to the Manitoba Chiropractors Association, the regulatory body for her profession.
The association acts as both the regulator and primary advocacy group for chiropractors. Five people elected by fellow Manitoba chiropractors govern it, along with one member appointed by the board and one appointed by the provincial government.
- CBC InvestigatesSome chiropractors forced to adjust websites after association cracks down on health messaging
There's an internal conflict among chiropractors that splits them in two factions: the evidence-based practitioners and the more traditional ones, explained experts.
This divide plays itself out when it comes to vaccines, where the traditional sect often doesn't support vaccination, said Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor and a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.
"It just shows this internal fight that is going on.… They're struggling with how they should deal with vaccination and how they should speak to the public about vaccination," he said.
The result in Manitoba is a directive from the association made formal in 2017: chiropractors are not allowed to discuss vaccines with their clients because they are not within the scope of chiropractic practice.
At the core of this divide in the profession is subluxation — a diagnosis used by some chiropractors to measure the health of someone's spine.
If someone has a "subluxation-free spine," there are some in the profession who believe that you don't need vaccines or other medical interventions, explained Brian Gleberzon, a Toronto-based chiropractor and former professor at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College.
"This would be a very traditional belief, and they would hearken back to the developers of the profession," he said.
A consortium of chiropractic educational institutions from across the world have signed a position statement that subluxation should only be taught in a historic context, and it is "inappropriate and unnecessary" to be taught in modern chiropractic curriculum. The Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Canada's only English-taught chiropractic program, has signed on to this statement.
Gleberszon estimates about 20 per cent of the profession falls into the traditional category, with another 20 per cent believing in a strict evidence-based approach and the rest falling in the middle.
'The utter insanity'
After Weiss posted the article in 2021, the association's registrar, Audrey Toth, reached out to her.
Toth wrote in an email on May 11, 2021, that the association had flagged two posts that "speak to the issue of vaccination" on her Facebook and she needed to remove them.
Weiss wrote back to Toth, telling her she would remove the posts, but described the situation as "utter insanity."
"The fact that the shared posts are just scientific fact should have some bearing," she said.
Weiss removed one article about AstraZeneca and another one, but said she inadvertently left the "Underselling the Vaccine" post online, she told CBC News.
The registrar informed the association's investigation chair, Dan Therrien — also a fellow chiropractor — that the post remained online and Weiss may be in violation of the association's code of conduct regulations.
Therrien began an investigation and went to the Facebook of a different Carolyn Weiss and documented a series of questionable posts regarding vaccination that go against the profession's social media standards.
He sent her a cease-and-desist letter on June 3, 2021, flagging the six posts by a different Weiss.
It immediately startled Weiss, who said she knew those posts weren't hers. She didn't spell her name that way online and the posts appeared to be from an American Facebook user.
"They can suspend my licence, they can remove my licence, and as a new practitioner, four years in, that's my future, gone," she told CBC News.
"I've spent all this money on schooling and all this education.… So there was just this moment of terror."
So she hired a lawyer.
Webscraper IDs words not allowed by chiros
A CBC investigation in 2017 found dozens of examples of statements, claims and social media content by chiropractors at odds with many public health policies or medical research.
It led to the association subscribing to a web scraper tool in 2021 that crawls through the professional websites and social media accounts of chiropractors and flags keywords such as "vaccines."
The word "evidence-based," "principled," "honest," and "ethical" were also flagged, as the association felt they could be used to make one chiropractor appear superior to another, according to an undated memo from the association to chiropractors obtained by CBC News.
If any of these flagged words are used by a chiropractor on social media or a post, they are told to remove them by the association.
Gleberzon, who is also a former member of the Ontario Chiropractic Association, said he understands why the Manitoba association had to act.
"They don't regulate what you think. They regulate what you do and your behaviours," he said.
"Once they give the directive that you can't make any public statements for or against vaccines, you have to abide by what they said."
Caulfield sees the silence on vaccines as an issue because it gives the impression that all chiropractors may not believe in their efficacy.
"I recognize that the regulators are trying to be careful in telling their members that this is out of their scope of practice. But from the public perspective … does it just create doubt?" he said.
A request to interview the board chair was declined.
In a prepared statement, Terry Shaw, the association's executive director, said the association is a proponent of preventative health care and recognizes that vaccination is an established public health practice used in the "protection of individuals from infectious diseases."
The road to an inquiry
After Weiss hired a lawyer, months of back and forth email ensued. The association was pushing Weiss to sign a memorandum of agreement, and her lawyer Kevin Toyne refused to go to a meeting to sign it without seeing a draft first.
With no agreement in sight, Weiss was told this would go to the inquiry committee and she would possibly face disciplinary action.
Weiss opted to make the inquiry public, allowing journalists and her colleagues to watch the proceedings.
"I have done nothing wrong and they are trying to attack me, and the world needs to know what's going on and the world needs to know what our association is starting to do," she told CBC News when asked why she decided to make the inquiry public.
The inquiry was held over the course of four days in May and two days in September in 2022.
CBC News obtained the email exchanges, transcripts of meetings and other documents that were used as evidence during the public inquiry. A reporter also attended the hearings, which were held virtually.
A five-person panel of fellow chiropractors oversaw the proceedings. The objective was to decide if Weiss should face discipline for what had happened after Toth asked her to take down the social media post the previous year.
She faced four counts of professional misconduct:
That she failed to remove all posts on vaccines when asked by the registrar.
That she verbally said she would remove the post and did not.
That she reneged on a previous agreement to only advertise things that are within her scope of practice.
That she acted disgracefully, dishonourably and unprofessionally when she told the investigator her Facebook was private and that she had removed the post.
Weiss, Toth and Therrien testified over the course of the inquiry, facing cross-examination by Tim Valgardson, the lawyer representing the association, and Toyne, Weiss's lawyer.
It was the first public inquiry in the association's recent history.
At the centre of the debate was whether chiropractors can speak about vaccines, whether Weiss should have just signed an informal resolution on the matter and whether she purposefully left up one of her social media posts.
On Nov. 23, 2022 — a year and a half after Weiss first posted the article — the panel cleared her of any wrongdoing.
They said the failure to remove the post right away was not misconduct, that she eventually removed all posts in good faith and that Weiss's statements were not disgraceful.
While vindicated with the ruling, Weiss told CBC News she can't believe it ever came to this and got so far.
"I cried…. Finally, all of this stuff that's been sitting with me for the last year and a half is finally over," she said.
"I just don't even know why we were at this point. The amount of money that has been invested, the amount of time that has been invested is absolutely absurd."