Island Health has suspended Port Hardy’s Dr. Alex Nataros from practicing in emergency departments in the Island Health region.
In a statement received by the Gazette on Thursday, Feb. 9, Island Health’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ben Williams, stated the suspension was due to “a very serious patient complaint that gave rise to concerns about Dr. Nataros’ ability to safely practice in the emergency department.”
Nataros had previously told media the suspension was likely due to issues with his therapy dog Pearl being in the workplace, but Williams denied that was the case.
“I am aware that earlier [Wednesday, Feb. 8] Dr. Nataros told media outlets his emergency department privileges are restricted, and he alleged this is due to his comments in the media about me and/or in relation to his dog being in the workplace,” Williams said. “(It is) unfortunate he is characterizing the situation in this manner. More importantly, his comments are categorically untrue.”
Williams said Island Health would not normally comment on personnel matters, but was adamant he was speaking out due to Nataros being the one who made his restriction of privileges public.
“I have a responsibility to clarify the situation to ensure the public, and importantly the patients who access care in our emergency departments, have confidence in the services they receive,” he said. “I acknowledge I am making these comments reluctantly as personnel matters should be dealt with through the well-established channels available to those involved.”
Williams said an Island Health senior medical leader was alerted on Monday, Jan. 30, to a serious patient complaint regarding care delivered by Nataros in the Port Hardy emergency department. A preliminary investigation was launched within hours of being notified, including obtaining expertise from physicians in relevant specialties and a review of the medical record.
After gathering this information,Williams determined Island Health medical leaders needed to meet with Nataros before his next emergency department shift, which he says was scheduled for Friday, Feb. 3.
On Jan. 31, Island Health received correspondence from other members of the care team that raised concerns regarding patient safety and Nataros. On Wednesday, Feb. 1, at Williams’ direction, Island Health medical leaders met with Nataros to provide him the opportunity to share his perspective.
Williams said he carefully considered the above, along with Island Health’s ability to provide patient care, a functioning care team; and, “first and foremost, patient safety” in consultation with senior medical leaders with a variety of clinical backgrounds.
Williams said he was finalizing a letter to Nataros restricting his privileges on the afternoon of Feb. 2, when he became aware of Nataros’ accusation of harassment on social media coupled with his call for Williams’ resignation.
“This did not affect my decision-making,” Williams said. “My decision had already been made, and I was working on communicating it to Dr. Nataros.
“This is a legal obligation and when I become aware of patient care issues I must investigate and take appropriate next steps to ensure patient safety.”
Nataros is now restricted from working in Island Health emergency departments while “a fulsome investigation takes place into all of the concerns raised,” reads the statement. “In alignment with the bylaws, Dr. Nataros will have the full opportunity to respond to the concerns.”
“(He) has been made aware of next steps and has legal counsel to support him through this process,” Williams stated. “We have also informed Dr. Nataros of other supports that are available to him.”
Nataros reiterates he believes his suspension is simply due to him speaking out about the North Island health-care crisis, publicly calling for the resignation of Williams, and his therapy dog Pearl being used during work hours.
Nataros said he only became aware of the medical complaint in question when Dr. Louis (Dieter) de Bruin, executive medical director for Comox Valley, Campbell River and the North Island, urgently emailed him on Jan. 31. He said the accusations it contained were coerced and falsely directed towards him.
Nataros said he’s not able to comment any further due to internal processes, patient privacy and a current process involving the Canadian Malpractive Protective Assocation, but he said he’s confident in his ability to “deliver high level evidence-based patient care.”
“I understand this is an extremely difficult time for our patients in the North Island who hear of disruptions in care and are concerned about the loss of their doctor,” he added.
“I am firmly committed to the North Island, I have poured concrete in the past week at my new home, I have many great friends and supports, I am a new member of the Rotary Club of Port Hardy, I am deeply committed to the region, and I am clear that these baseless accusations from Ben Williams will be disproven and ultimately he will be asked to resign by his superiors.”
Longtime Port McNeill doctor Prean Armogam issued a statement to the Gazette defending Nataros, saying he believes that Island Health’s actions are in retaliation for speaking out.
“They are attempting to muzzle him and influence public opinion,” said Armogam. “Ben Williams cites ‘patient safety’ issues as a deflection of his and the overall organizational senior leadership dereliction of their respective duties. Doctors have professional accountability processes to abide by and get to answer to that. What accountability processes do [administrators] like Ben Williams, Kathy MacNeil and the [Island Health] board have?”
Nataros previously had a family practice in Comox for five years, which he abruptly shut down in July of 2021 in order to go on an “indefinite medical leave.”
When asked about the leave, he said it was due to “a family situation outside of my control, I needed to take time away from my medical practice.”
He started working at the Port Hardy clinic and hospital in August of 2022. Nataros said he has a longstanding record of defending patient interests, going back to 2013 when he was a first-year family medicine resident at Saint Mary’s hospital. Nataros received his medical degree from McGill in 2012.
The B.C. Green Party will be hosting a health care press conference in Victoria at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 10, with further information coming from various health-care workers who will be attending.
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