Port Hardy Dr. Alex Nataros has publicly called for Island Health’s Vice-President Dr. Ben Williams to resign.
Nataros posted on his official Twitter account that due to “physician harassment and ongoing dereliction of duty to meet basic job responsibility to provide medical leadership” he is calling for “the resignation of Dr. Ben Williams as Island Health Chief Medical Officer.”
When asked to comment further, Nataros sent in a more detailed statement to the Gazette about his ongoing issues with Williams.
“Recently, we had a Zoom call between Ben Williams and all of the North Island doctors - except for one, who, owing to continued mistreatment from Island Health, has decided after many years of serving Port Hardy to leave our community, and declines all engagement in Island Health meetings,” Nataros wrote.
Emails obtained by the Gazette confirm the anonymous Port Hardy doctor’s longstanding issues with Island Health, with one statement showing he’s been currently working with “an expired contract for about [nine months] now, and still being billed monthly leases. My plan remains that I want to work till around end of Summer and handover my patients to new physicians to not leave them stranded.”
“What is my new contract status at present? What do I have for job security from you? What is the recruitment status of new physicians so that I may transition my patients to new physicians?” wondered the anonymous physician.
Nataros says the relationship between North Island physicians and Island Health has been a strained one, going back to a November Zoom call between the same parties, “where Ben Williams committed within one week to communicating an action plan for our North Island medical system that addressed physician concerns.”
It’s no secret the North Island has been struggling with staffing shortages, hospital closures and diversions for years now.
According to Nataros, one week later, there was continued radio silence. Over two months later, there was still no response from Williams, “despite his stated commitment and self-imposed - and unmet - timeline.”
“Curiously, one recent morning last month, I was busy going between the Port Hardy hospital and a clinic where I already had four patients waiting, when I was cold-called by Williams,” he added. “I had never had a one-on-one discussion with this individual and was startled to receive an unplanned call that morning. It was intimidating. This individual controlled my ability to work within Island Health facilities. Ben Williams was calling to express concern regarding my use of my dog Pearl as a therapy dog for palliative patients and residents of our long-term care Eagle Ridge Manor. Apparently I was not following Island Health policies.”
Emails obtained by the Gazette show Williams side of the story. He wrote in one email that he mentioned during a Feb. 1 Zoom meeting that Nataros’ dog “was present in the examination room with you. This was in violation of the Pets in the Workplace Policy and in violation of my very clear written direction that you must abide by the policy. This may lead to disciplinary action and other consequences. You are required to immediately abide by the policy and not bring your pet to work.”
Another email from Williams explained that “if Dr. Nataros believes the policy requires revision, I would ask that he work with the local medical and clinical leadership who can raise this with infection control and the appropriate regional leaders.”
The Gazette reached out to Williams’ assistant Sharon Fennel for a response to the allegations and was issued a statement from Island Health’s President and CEO Kathy MacNeil defending him.
“As CEO, I expect Dr. Williams – as the Chief Medical Officer for Island Health – to fully investigate when concerns arise about the quality of care delivered by a member of the medical staff,” she wrote. “Island Health in general, and Dr. Williams in particular, has a responsibility under the Medical Staff Bylaws to ensure patient safety and to fully investigate when concerns arise.”
MacNeil noted she is grateful Williams undertakes this work “with both a focus on patient safety and a commitment to work collaboratively, to support the delivery of quality care. He has my complete and continued confidence in his leadership.”
Finally, she added if a physician has a concern, “they are well aware of the mechanisms available to them to raise their concerns, including through their Medical Staff Association.”
“At Island Health, our focus remains on stabilizing health-care services in the North Island through the significant commitment recently announced by the Ministry of Health, to build a foundation for the future. We are committed to do this working collaboratively with all of our partners – including the local physician community. This is what North Island patients and communities, and our care teams, need and deserve.”
Meanwhile, Port McNeill physician Dr. Prean Armogam, who has been living and working in the North Island for 17 years now, is also calling for a change in leadership at Island Health.
Armogam says he’s been dealing with Island Health’s poor treatment of physicians since 2020. After blowing the whistle on North Island health-care issues, where he went so far as to threaten to shut down his private clinic due to a lack of support from Island Health, he then had to step down from his position as Medical Director for the Regional District of Mount Waddington.
“It was harassment,” Armogam said when asked about the reason he stepped down. “It was because I stood up for myself about issues regarding privilege and race, and I was labelled as a troublemaker … The moment you point out deficiencies you get labelled as disruptive or not following the rules, but at the same time, there’s been a complete lack of accountability from VIHA.
“In more recent times, [VIHA] has not been present, they’re not listening, and with all the hospital closures and diversions, they’ve been lacking in support for Port Hardy doctors.”
The rotating North Island hospital closures and diversions have been going on for years now. Armogam says it’s ultimately been a “hot potato approach - it’s poorly thought out, it’s not planned, and it puts patients at risk.”
“The brokenness [of the North Island health-care system] needs to stop,” he added. “This has been going on for a long time, and there is no confidence in the competence of the senior executive to actually administer change on a successful level. They haven’t been helpful, they haven’t been listening, and patients have been suffering.”