A doctor who refused to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of a “religious and spiritual objection” issued medical certificates to some patients, stating the vaccine would be unsuitable for them, despite no sufficient evidence backing this up.
The doctor continued seeing patients face-to-face and issued 282 vaccine exemptions to patients in almost three months, despite a reminder from the Ministry of Health that it was “critical” for staff to be vaccinated.
Now, the doctor, known as Dr A, has been called “wholly irresponsible” by the health watchdog for not complying with healthcare standards during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) decision released today.
The HDC has refused to name the doctor but the Herald understands it is Dr Jonie Girouard, an American doctor who ran a weightloss clinic in Kaiapoi.
She is no longer registered in New Zealand and has left the country.
In December 2021, Dr Girouard was the subject of a Newshub sting after which the Commissioner initiated an investigation into the doctor’s practice during the Covid-19 pandemic when she was seeing patients in person at her clinic.
An excerpt from the transcript in the HDC report lines up with the news article by Patrick Gower that aired on December 8, 2021.
Girouard’s clinic advertised itself as a “wellness centre”. During its investigation, the HDC heard the clinic did not provide general GP services, nor did it take care of sick patients and encouraged its patients to be enrolled at a GP practice of their choosing.
It heard that Girouard was the only staff member engaged by the clinic and was engaged as a volunteer. She was unvaccinated against Covid-19 because of her “religious and spiritual objection”.
Initially, the Covid-19 Public Health Response Order 2021 stated Girouard needed to be vaccinated to practice, however, from November 7, 2021, onwards, the law changed to allow the doctor to practice unvaccinated so long as she wasn’t seeing patients in person.
The clinic was also prohibited from allowing Girouard to practise unless she was vaccinated or had a legal exemption.
On November 12, 2021, the clinic requested an exemption from the Ministry of Health (MoH) for Girouard to continue practising while unvaccinated because she was the only doctor in the country with certain qualifications and expertise.
On December 2, 2021, the request was declined. During that time, the doctor continued to see 418 patients while unvaccinated, however, the clinic assured the HDC safety measures were put in place such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
The clinic indicated that it would pursue a further amended application and the doctor continued practising.
The MOH wrote to the clinic again on December 9, reminding it that the request had been declined and it was “critical” for staff to be vaccinated due to working with people who were at an increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19.
After this, Girouard saw a further 10 patients, stating they could not be contacted to reschedule their appointments and she did not feel comfortable turning them away when they arrived at the clinic.
From November 8, 2021 a person could only be granted a vaccine exemption on medical grounds by the Director-General of Health.
However, between October 26 and December 15, 2021, Girouard issued an estimated 282 medical exemptions for the Covid-19 vaccine.
On November 11, 2021, the HDC received a complaint from a mother whose 17-year-old son had been given a medical certificate from Girouard that implied he was not suitable for the vaccine.
The doctor had not met the 17-year-old previously and didn’t have access to his medical notes or history. The doctor’s notes state the 17-year-old did not want to be “forced” to get the vaccine as it went against his beliefs.
The notes also stated that the boy had a history of seizures and was anxious about getting the vaccine.
The boy was charged $60 for the consultation and $20 for the medical certificate.
Girouard confirmed that of the estimated 282 medical certificates she issued, most were in the same format as the 17-year-old’s.
Records stated the only assessment undertaken by her before she gave out medical certificates was a patient’s blood pressure and the medical history obtained was self-reported.
Some of the patients’ reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated were due to “preferring natural immunity” and the vaccine “violating’ their beliefs.
On December 22, 2021, the Medical Council of New Zealand removed Girouard from the council’s register, at her request.
On January 11, 2022, the Ministry of Health issued Girouard with an infringement notice and a $300 fine for breaching the Order by continuing to provide healthcare services while unvaccinated.
Health and Disability Commissioner Morag McDowell was critical of the doctor and clinic as the standards that were “vital” to ensure public safety during the Covid-19 pandemic were not adhered to.
She found that “Dr A” had breached the Code which gives consumers the right to services that comply with legal, professional, ethical and other relevant standards.
McDowell accepted the doctor was entitled to hold opinions regarding the vaccine, however, she said that Dr A continuing to see patients while being unvaccinated despite reminders from the Ministry was “wholly irresponsible.
“In any case, it is extremely concerning that Dr A continued to fail to follow the Order without adequate explanation, and I am critical of Dr A on this basis,” McDowell said.
McDowell recommended that if the doctor was to return to New Zealand to practice, the Medical Council should undertake a review of her competence.
Medical Council chief executive Joan Simeon acknowledged the HDC report and findings and said it ensured consumers’ entitlement to services that adhered to legal, professional, ethical, and other relevant standards.
“In this case, it is evident that the legal requirement for in-person consultations, along with Medical Council standards on medical certification, were not upheld.
“Patients rely on healthcare providers for accurate and comprehensive information to make informed decisions about their health, especially during a public health crisis.”
She said if the doctor ever returned to New Zealand to practise the council would be guided by the HDC recommendation to review her competence.
Emily Moorhouse is a Christchurch-based Open Justice journalist at NZME. She joined NZME in 2022. Before that, she was at the Christchurch Star.