A Murupara doctor could face medical watchdog scrutiny over comments around informed consent for Covid vaccinations, despite the community rallying round their GP and local leaders saying there was no anti-vax message.
Dr Bernard Conlon is under the spotlight for comments made last month at a Māori health expo at the Murupara Medical Centre.
According to a newsletter posted by the medical centre on its Facebook page, Dr Conlon had spoken “around his concerns with informed consent for children and pregnant women”.
There are 13 new community cases of Covid-19 in the Delta outbreak, all in Auckland. That brings the total number to 868.
“Unfortunately, this was not well-received by the Public Health representation, and as a consequence Bernard has been reported to the NZ Medical Council who have arranged a hearing next month,” the newsletter read.
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Exactly what was said remains unclear, and staff at the Murupara Medical Centre said he was not at the practice this week.
However, in an email to Stuff Conlon said his priority “is to continue serving this community as their doctor, particularly when Covid-19 arrives and when I will be most needed”.
“With this in mind I am not prepared to give any interview at this time.”
Dr Curtis Walker, chair of the Medical Council of New Zealand, would not speak specifically on whether the Dr Conlon was the subject of a complaint or hearing, because of privacy concerns.
He said the Council “has been clear in the recent publication of guidance, that there is no place for anti-vaccination messages in professional practice, nor any promotion of anti-vaccination claims including on social media and advertising by health practitioners.
“Council expects doctors to be aware of, and comply with, its published standards of clinical and ethical practice,” he said.
However, patients and community members are backing their doctor, who has spent decades serving one of the country’s most deprived areas and its remote hinterland.
Murupara Community Board member Alison Silcock, who was present at the meeting, told Stuff she didn’t believe Conlon said anything that would be viewed as anti-vaccine.
“He was just talking about informed consent, how important it was,” she said.
“Bernard was saying it’s important people with medical conditions go to their doctor and have a conversation. Definitely not ‘anti-vax.”
New Zealand is in the midst of a massive vaccination campaign against Covid-19.
Murupara Community Board chair Jackie Te Amo said she did not believe Conlon was anti-vaccine either, but that he had raised concerns about certain vulnerable groups being vaccinated by individuals unfamiliar with them.
“He had some concerns as GP, he thought that was a bit dangerous they [people giving the vaccine] didn’t have the history of that person.”
She also spoke warmly of Conlon and his service to the Murupara, Galatea, Kaingaroa, Minginui and Ruatahuna communities.
“Over the years he’s been a really good doctor to our community.”
While the shift in Covid alert levels for most of the country will be welcomed, restrictions are still in place.
An online petition in support of Dr Conlon had more than 2200 signatures as of Thursday afternoon, with many messages of gratitude.
One signatory said Conlon treated her husband when he had the incurable disease Mesothelioma.
“Prognosis was 9 months. Dr Conlon continued to research all traditional and non-traditional medical journals. His support gave my husband another 7 months with us.”
Another simply said she owed her life to Conlon.
“Dr Conlon's expert medical practice resulted in a diagnosis of a disease I had that was previously undetected. This vigilance resulted in a successful liver transplant in 2016.”
The message about Covid-19 measures was certainly being taken on board by the Murupara Four Square, just a few metres away from Dr Conlon’s practice.
Another person cited the petition itself as a sign of his popularity.
”He ‘doctors’ instead of ‘medicating’”, they said.
”What other doctors in this country have had a hearing because they had concerns regarding informed consent for our tamariki and hapu māmā? Never heard of any.”
Murupara sits in the Whakatāne District, where 53 per cent of residents have had at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, Bay of Plenty DHB Covid-19 incident controller Trevor Richardson said.
It's on par with the wider Bay of Plenty DHB, where 54 per cent of residents have had at least one shot.
The DHB declined to comment on whether its public health team was present at the meeting or if its members had reported Conlon's comments.
“This is a matter between the GP and the Medical Council, and it is not appropriate for us to comment at this time," a statement said.
Dr Walker, of the Medical Council said the body’s job was to protect the public health and safety of New Zealanders.
“This is the touchstone against which the Council considers every decision about individual doctors.”
Walker said any doctor who failed to comply with the standards set by the council could face a number of measures, including suspension in the most serious cases.
“Council has a number of matters relating to these issues under consideration. However, as mentioned, privacy considerations limit any further comment on individual cases. What we can say that Council treats these matters very seriously, with our primary focus being public safety.”