Ontario’s medical regulator is seeking to revoke the licence of a doctor who showed naked photos of himself to 11 patients and three staff members.
Last year, the discipline committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario found Dr. Nigel Mark Phipps committed professional misconduct when he displayed the nude pictures of himself to patients, made remarks of a sexual nature to others and touched at least one patient in a sexual manner.
It also found the family physician’s behaviour in showing similar photos to staff members “rose well above the level of unacceptable into disgraceful, dishonourable and unprofessional conduct.”
Phipps’s case was adjourned for months while he sought treatment for medical issues, but in a hearing Wednesday, lawyers for the college asked the committee to impose the most severe penalty available.
The college’s lawyer, Elizabeth Widner, argued the doctor’s actions did not amount to a momentary lapse of judgment – rather, they spanned weeks and affected several patients, some of them dealing with serious physical or emotional issues.
“This physician sexualized physician-patient appointments,” she told the committee. “He did so by showing photographs of himself in a semi-erect state. He was sexually aroused in two appointments with two patients.”
Defence lawyers, meanwhile, have said Phipps should instead be suspended from practising medicine for more than a year.
They have argued that the fact that Phipps, 59, was suffering from depression at the time of the incidents should be considered a mitigating factor.
Testifying before the committee earlier this week, Phipps said he was “profoundly depressed” in the summer of 2014. He recalled feeling unmotivated and lethargic and losing interest in favourite activities such as golf and exercise.
Phipps said his behaviour left him feeling “sad and ashamed.”
Widner acknowledged Wednesday that the Georgetown, Ont., physician has lived with depression for a long time but said there was no evidence to suggest the condition would have contributed to his actions.
“The causal link is not there,” she said.
Some of the patients, whose identities cannot be revealed, have said they grew mistrustful of health professionals after the incidents.
One described feeling betrayed by the doctor she had been seeing since 2004.
“His action … has reopened some personal wounds and broken me emotionally,” she said in an impact statement presented to the committee earlier this week.
“Dr. Phipps has turned my life upside down and I’m having a harder time now trusting males and people in general,” she said. “I need to stop him so he won’t do this to other women.”
Another said the violation of trust has taken an emotional and physical toll. “There are days when I cannot get out of bed. There are days that I cannot stop crying,” the patient said.
Another patient, however, described Phipps as a good, attentive doctor who made an “inappropriate” and disturbing joke.
“I see him as a person who started to go sideways, if you will – and while he absolutely needs to be held accountable, there should be some room for him to redeem himself,” the patient said.
In a summary of its decision last year, committee said Phipps had shown the photos to women who were long-term patients, often under the pretext of discussing a golf trip he had taken two years earlier.
It ruled his conduct constituted sexual abuse and noted the doctor became sexually aroused after showing the photos to two of the patients.
The committee said Phipps acknowledged making comments to two patients along the lines of “I’ve seen yours, now you’ve seen mine.” Another patient also testified he showed her a photo of his genitals and asked, “Ain’t I well endowed for a man my age,” the committee said.
As for his actions towards three staff members, the committee said Phipps abused his position of authority.
“Boundaries in a physician’s workplace are essential so as to provide an atmosphere of safety and respect for all. They help control and address issues of workplace harassment, workplace safety, and power imbalance in settings that are often fast-paced, intense, and stressful,” the committee wrote.
“Dr. Phipps’s conduct crossed such boundaries and constitutes disgraceful, dishonourable, and unprofessional conduct. It cannot be tolerated.”
The college is also asking that Phipps be ordered to pay more than $16,000 for each patient to help pay for their therapy, as well as more than $15,000 to the regulator to cover costs of the proceedings.