Doctors should provide options to treat unvaxxed patients: medical college

Medical practitioners should receive some clarity next week on how to handle patients who have not received a COVID vaccine as the provincial governing body for the sector aims to introduce a policy addressing the matter.

At the same time, though, The College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick wants to ensure those who have not been vaccinated are receiving the standard level of care.

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, the registrar with the college, said currently physicians are handling unvaccinated patients in different ways and there currently isn’t a clear policy on the issue.

He said the college, so far, has only heard from a few people who have been refused medical care.

“We’re going to make it clear to physicians that if there is a reason that they can’t bring the patient into the office, they should be prepared to do something to assist this patient whether that might be virtual, seeing the patient somewhere else, or seeing the patient at a different time of day,” he said.

Some doctors, he said, believe if patients face obstacles to accessing medical care, it will provide an incentive to get vaccinated. Others continue to see patients with COVID-19 regulations in place, such as requiring those with symptoms to take a coronavirus test and scheduling online appointments.

He said the concern with denying medical access is patients may not get the care they need.

“There’s always that risk,” Schollenberg said. “On the other hand, some visits are about a non-urgent matter, like filling out a form or getting refills, and they can be handled virtually and almost every doctor is doing that.”

According to Marc-Alain Mallet, director of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, the human rights legislation in the province is driven by complaints, and because there haven’t been complaints on the issue, the commission has no guidelines on unvaccinated patients.

But Mallet said the rights of a patient would fall under the same rights as anyone accessing services available to the public in the province.

Dr. Michael Simon runs a large family practice in Saint John. He said he hasn’t refused to treat people who aren’t vaccinated but if they have COVID-19 symptoms they aren’t permitted into office until they receive a negative COVID-19 test. In the case of symptoms, he would schedule an appointment virtually, so they do receive medical attention.

Since the province rolled out the vaccines in the winter, Simon said the vast majority of his patients have been eager to get the jab. Those who are vaccine-hesitant and anti-vaccine make up a very small number of his patients.

For his vaccine-hesitant patients, Simon said it’s an opportunity to have a conversation about the information available on the vaccines: how they’re safe and why they’re important.

Anti-vaccine patients are harder to convince, but he’s had some success.

“We try to explain why babies get all these needles and why there’s no more smallpox and why you don’t see measles epidemics, how vaccinations have been one of the greater medical improvements in mankind’s history after water and sanitation,” he said.

Dr. Will Stymiest, a family physician in Fredericton and a board member of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said the biggest challenge is balancing the risk of seeing that person over the phone with the risk of them potentially bringing the virus into a medical clinic.

“There’s a lot of variability in the province in terms of family doctors, but I think everybody is trying to show empathy and compassion for people regardless of their personal health choices,” Stymiest said. “Trying to balance that person’s risk with the risk to my office, my staff and myself and my other patients is what we’re trying to do at the end of the day.”

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