'It's really scary': Alberta physicians face more aggressive, misinformed patients

Some family physicians in Alberta say they are dealing with an increasing number of aggressive, misinformed and untrusting patients who want a note exempting them from getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Two of three Calgary doctors who spoke to The Canadian Press also said some people have yelled racist comments at them after they declined to write a note because the patients did not have health conditions known to cause serious side-effects to a shot.

“They mostly comment on my brown skin and hijab” said Dr. Sakina Raj. “I'm also Muslim ... so they come to religion and they get personal with that.

“It's really scary because I feel sometimes they were so abusive verbally, that they could harm us. But I still am kind to them. I calm them down nicely. I'm too experienced to be stressed by them.”

Raj said since Premier Jason Kenney announced a proof of vaccination program to try to turn back a crippling fourth wave in the province, safety has become such a concern that Sehet Medical Clinic is now dealing with new patients wanting an exemption only on the phone.

Raj and another Calgary physician said more than three patients a day are asking their clinics for an exemption. Dr. Mukarram Zaidi said one patient tried to bribe him with $200.

“He comes and says that he would like to have a note and he will be compensating for that,” Zaidi said.

When Zaidi declined, the patient became aggressive and began talking to him louder about ethics, he said.

Zaidi said few people are eligible for an exemption. They include anyone diagnosed with myocarditis or pericarditis - inflammation of the heart or its membrane - or someone who has a confirmed anaphylactic allergy to an ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine.

This particular patient did not meet those criteria.

“I was really upset with it,” Zaidi said.

Raj said she has thought about calling police during a few consultations.

“Before, there were individuals coming in without a mask, kind of arguing, but this vaccine proof has brought it to another level,” Zaidi added.

Zaidi and Raj said racist comments and an aggressive tone are regular occurrences these days, but they don't want to focus on that. What's most concerning to them is that misinformed patients are walking into their clinics.

Some patients tell stories about family members in other countries having outlandish reactions to the vaccine. Others say their religious leader has told them not to get a shot. Zaidi said some patients don't want to hear any scientific information at all.

“What boggles me is that they come in, trust me for everything else besides COVID. They allow me to examine them for everything else. It frustrates me to understand the mentality of these individuals.”

If patients are worried about having an allergic reaction, the doctors direct them to take an allergy test, which some patients decline to do.

Dr. Memoona Butt, another Calgary physician, said she gets most frustrated with patients who read information about the virus from unverified sources.

“Some people are saying that they don't want any foreign particle or any chemical injected into their body. A number of patients are also worried that we are putting some chips in their system,” Butt said.

The three doctors said colleagues across the province have successfully persuaded the vaccine-hesitant to get their shots by walking them through what's involved and addressing their concerns.

“I also tell them that Canada's independent drug authorization ... has high standards and a rigorous review process,” Butt said.

Raj said she worries about her patients who don't want to be vaccinated.

“Some of them are smokers, or have underlying lung conditions, or they're diabetic. If they catch COVID, they might end up in (an intensive care unit).”

She said her clinic has been calling patients to educate them on why they need to get their shots.

“We have seen how interactions with patients on this topic may become emotional and difficult,” the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta wrote in a statement to doctors.

The college, which regulates the practice of medicine in the province, says doctors can ask patients to leave if they become abusive.

“You and your team are not expected to tolerate this type of behaviour,” the statement says.

Raj said the best advice she gives to her patients is to keep an open mind.

“I still want to help them.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.