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Local Healthcare Workers Face Harassment

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Massoud Horriat Crop
Massoud Horriat, owner of St. Adolphe Pharmacy. Sara Beth Dacombe

An increasing number of healthcare professionals are experiencing mistreatment, harassment, and threats due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the overall rise in social tension.

On December 20, Doctors Manitoba released the results of a survey that showed nearly six out of ten doctors report similar incidents of mistreatment, including verbal abuse, threats, online bullying, and physical assault.

That survey was conducted in November 2020, which shows that the incidents of mistreatment are likely to be escalating amidst an already tense atmosphere in healthcare and putting healthcare professionals at further risk of burnout.

The survey reports that 57 percent experienced incidents of mistreatment over the previous month. More than half of the incidents, 52 percent, appear to be linked to the pandemic in some way. Also, the incidents are happening more frequently than a year ago, with 59 percent of physicians reporting increased frequency.

“We are asking all Manitobans to please be kind and respectful to physicians and other healthcare workers who are trying to provide care under very difficult conditions,” says Dr. Kristjan Thompson, President of Doctors Manitoba. “COVID-19 has been hard for everyone. Whether you are frustrated with pandemic restrictions or you are facing long wait times to get a medical test or surgery, please don’t take these frustrations out on doctors. They care about your well-being and they are advocating for you each and every day.”

Locals Experience Harassment

Massoud Horriat, owner of St. Adolphe Pharmacy, knows firsthand what it’s like to be verbally harassed on the job.

“Oh yes, I’ve had some experiences with that one, getting lectures or harsh talking,” says Horriat. “One guy stopped by once a week giving me heck, because I started [offering] vaccinations. I was very, very early, one of the very first ones when they started vaccinations. One fellow would stop by once a week for about four or five weeks in a row, giving me lectures. Another guy was encouraging me to take the antiparasitic medicine because somebody in the [United States] or on Facebook said to do so.”

Horriat says he can’t recall how many times he has been forced to have these debates with customers, but it has happened “frequently.” He has found it be a discouraging trend, because he’s doing his best to help people professionally.

“As much as it’s discouraging, we are under oath and we see everybody as wonderful human beings,” he says. “You have to do your best and help them to see reason, to reason with them and try to encourage them.”

Horriat adds that it’s been challenging to deal with people who are staunchly antivaccination. However, he has also been successful at talking to people who are vaccine-hesitant.

“I have two people today coming for the first time,” he says.

Not everyone is open to dialogue, but when it comes to convincing the vaccine-hesitant, Horriat says that he feels it comes down to being able to supply the correct information.

“First of all, deal with facts,” says Horriat. “And know that it is so subjective. I can’t give you an answer that will be the one for everyone. I would need to know more information about what they are actually thinking. Is there a phobia? Is there misinformation? And in every one of them, case by case, I would answer and answer.”

Despite this, Horriat says that his experience in the community has overall been positive and that a few negative experiences aren’t going to change that.

“I have such a wonderful community and the community is very supportive. That’s very encouraging to me.”

Southern Health Singled Out in Public Appeal

Unfortunately, some of Horriat’s more negative experiences are shared by other rural medical professionals. Despite the warm and welcoming stereotype most small towns enjoy, the survey shows that harassment is more common for practitioners in rural areas.

One doctor from Southern Health shared his experience and how it has changed over time specifically because of tension surrounding COVID-19.

“I’ve worked in the Southern Health region for decades and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Dr. Don Klassen, a family physician who works in Winkler and at Boundary Trails Health Centre. “I’ve heard from several physicians who are considering early retirement or relocation at least in part because of the threats and verbal abuse they’ve faced. Please know that physicians are going through this pandemic with you, every step of the way, and we’ll get through this together.”

Doctors Manitoba has issued a province-wide public appeal for kindness and respect.

Many physicians are also encouraged by new federal legislation that’s been passed in Ottawa with the aims of protecting health workers and patients from threats, violence, and harassment.

The new law makes it illegal for people to intimidate healthcare workers, impede access to medical facilities, or intimidate people accessing health services, including COVID-19 vaccinations. The new offences carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Additionally, Doctors Manitoba published a safety guide earlier this year for physicians and health care organizations.

Most incidents occurred in doctors’ offices or hospitals, though there were some incidents that occurred on social media, in public places, and at physicians’ homes.

Incidents of mistreatment appear to occur more frequently among physicians who are women, people of colour, and those working in family medicine.

Other Local Healthcare Providers

In Niverville, the Open Health medical clinic declined to comment about any specific issues surrounding harassment or abuse aimed toward healthcare staff and clinicians.

“At the clinic, however, we do have a zero tolerance policy for abuse directed toward our staff and clinicians,” says Kristen Fyfe, business manager for Open Health. “Safety is our number one priority—for our staff and for the patients. We support our healthcare colleagues who are bringing awareness to this problem in our province.”

Gilbert Leung is the acting pharmacy manager for the Red River Co-op Pharmacy in Niverville. The business, located in the Heritage Centre, offers both COVID-19 vaccinations as well as the seasonal flu shot.

Leung says that the staff at their location haven’t experienced any incidents of harassment from customers, but some customers have expressed frustration.

Customers are frustrated not that the pharmacy is offering the COVID-19 vaccine, but that the pharmacy is only able to supply a limited number of vaccinations.

People in the community want to be able to get vaccinated locally and not drive outside of Niverville. However, this pharmacy is only able to administer a maximum number of doses per day.

“We are offering vaccinations for the flu and COVID and the response has been very good,” says Leung. “Originally, we ordered 150 doses of flu shot and they came in at the beginning of October and in a couple of weeks they were all gone. And every day we are getting phone calls from people in the community as well as other communities asking for the COVID vaccine because they want it done. We want to accommodate as many as possible, but we do have a limited supply.”

Leung says that Red River Co-op Pharmacy has a harassment policy in place for their staff to follow should they encounter any increase in altercations with customers.

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