The Nunee Health Board Society has responded to a wave of media attention and aghast residents who expressed shock last week following the dismissal of one of its on-call doctors.
The Fort Chipewyan health authority fired Dr. John O’Connor on Friday, May 8, giving little reason for the decision in its abrupt email to the physician, which told him his services would no longer be needed in the community and that he could no longer represent Nunee in any way, effective immediately.
Last week, the board released a statement in an effort to give more of an explanation.
“Over the past few days there has been a great deal of miscommunication about physician services at Nunee and Dr. O’Connor,” the statement reads. “This has caused unnecessary fear and confusion. As the Board of Directors of Nunee, we are concerned by this and have prepared this message so all residents receive accurate information.
“On May 8, 2015 the Board informed Dr. O’Connor that it no longer required his services to provide on-call coverage after regular clinic hours or on the weekends,” it continues. “It is important that the residents realize that Dr. O’Connor has not provided clinics in Fort Chipewyan for seven years.”
The statement also indicates any residents who wish to continue seeing O’Connor in Fort McMurray or Fort McKay may do so.
The open letter also points out that Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, an on-call doctor for the community who is currently on holiday, would soon be resuming her duties as visiting community physician. Two Alberta Health Services (AHS) doctors are providing on-call services to the community in her absence.
Though leaders in the community either declined or were unavailable for comment, Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille expressed some concern in an article by the Edmonton Journal. Courtoreille said O’Connor hadn’t been to Fort Chipewyan in several years, and questioned his commitment as an advocate for the community. He also stated that O’Connor had been approached about a “Well-Man’s” clinic and had never responded to the request.
O’Connor said he travels to the community every two or three years, and runs a tele-health system out of his house in Edmonton, meaning he didn’t always need to be in the community to conduct his business. He also remembers turning down the men’s wellness proposal because he was too busy with all of his travel clinics.
The Nunee board of directors and the health director are working with AHS to recruit another rotating doctor to work with Tailfeathers and provide clinics in Fort Chipewyan, with the intent of having this person in place by September.
O’Connor is known for first raising the alarm over high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a northern Alberta community of about 1,500 people located downstream from the oilsands. O’Connor believes the inflated cancer numbers are linked to contaminants from resource development activities, a claim that was substantiated by a study partially funded by Health Canada in 2014.
In the past, O’Connor has faced multiple charges of professional misconduct; however, they have all been cleared.