Doctor charged with sexually assaulting 6 patients had been barred from seeing some female patients alone

A Manitoba doctor now charged with six counts of sexual assault was under restrictions for almost two years, which said he couldn’t be alone with female patients in some situations.

A notice posted in Dr. Arcel Bissonnette’s office and examination rooms in Ste. Anne, Man., informed his patients that a female attendant must act as a chaperone whenever he conducted a breast or pelvic examination of a female patient.

On Thursday, he was barred from practicing medicine once his criminal charges came to light, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba said.

But before then, the regulatory body was aware of at least one complaint that prompted it to demand a female chaperone in the room for some exams in 2019.

Dr. Anna Ziomek, the college’s registrar, said she cannot say why this restriction was placed on the doctor, due to The Regulated Health Professionals Act, but said their response was considered appropriate based on the information it had.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba placed a condition on Dr. Arcel Bissonnette requiring him to have a female chaperone in some instances. A notice of the condition was placed in his office and examination rooms. (Submitted)

“Whatever matter we reviewed, we felt that this was the most reasonable and appropriate restriction or conditions that we could put at that time,” she said.

The college moved promptly Thursday to pull his licence to practice as it became aware of the police investigation and subsequent charges, Ziomek said.

His profile no longer appears on the college’s website.

“What always goes through your mind is how devastating this is for the patients that had to endure this kind of treatment by a physician, by somebody who was placed in a position of power and privilege and chooses to use that for their own benefit.”

Bissonnette, 61, has been accused of sexually assaulting six patients from 2004 to 2017. He worked at Ste. Anne Hospital and Sainte-Anne Medical Centre in Ste. Anne, which is about 40 km southeast of Winnpeg.

The Ste. Anne Police Service said it’s asking anybody with further information to come forward as it wants to ensure no other victims exist.

Condition was in ‘interest of public safety’

As for the initial restriction imposed by the college, “it’s not difficult to infer,” Ziomek said, that concerns were brought forward and a condition put on his practice “in the interest of public safety.”

Despite a documented concern, he was still allowed to practice.

Taylor Wigston saw the notice requiring a chaperone when she went to visit a different doctor at Sainte-Anne Medical Centre in 2019.

“Obviously, it made me a little uneasy,” she said.

“I’m sure they didn’t want to post that unless they felt like they had to.”

Wigston understands there are investigations and protocols, but she wishes the clinic was forthcoming to patients about the initial complaint. She questions if a few notices plastered on some walls was enough.

“If I was going to see him, I would want some kind of heads-up.”

When asked to respond to concerns the college didn’t level a strict enough penalty at the time, Zimoek said the college responded with a measure it deemed satisfactory based on the evidence. The college had no evidence that Bissonnette breached any conditions of the condition.

She said the college did not approach police about the complaint it received.

In any instance when an adult patient feels a physician’s conduct was criminal in nature, Ziomek said it is left up to them if they want to get the police involved. There are some cases where the college would encourage it, but it wouldn’t go “above their head,” she said.