When Doug Hewer found a lump on his neck more than three years ago, he did what most people would: He called his family doctor to have a look.
That doctor was Chilliwack’s Sean Cambridge who was in the news recently for being stripped of his provisional licence to practise. His wife and partner, Dr. Rosemary Cambridge, was also ordered to stop practising.
Sean Cambridge billed the provincial government close to $600,000 per year on average for the six years he practised in Chilliwack, all under that provisional licence and all while failing the board qualifying exams five times since 2011 until September 2017 when the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. finally shut them down.
Those licensing exams test clinical skills and medical knowledge, so many patients wonder why the College continued to grant extensions after proving themselves unable to pass the test.
The Cambridges’ practice was a busy one. Hewer got an appointment on March 23, 2015 where Dr. Sean Cambridge prescribed an antibiotic, a clinical choice one experienced doctor explained to The Progress was a logical first step.
After a few weeks, there was no change to Hewer’s lump so he went back and Cambridge ordered an ultrasound, also a logical next step, according to physicians consulted.
Still, Hewer was concerned with the fact that Dr. Cambridge never examined him, never even touched him, and then there was the result of the ultrasound: benign. So, he was told, no worries.
But by the start of 2016, about a year and a half since the lump was first discovered, Dr. Cambridge finally sent Hewer to see a specialist who asked: “Why am I seeing you now?”
Cambridge gave Hewer the unfortunate result: cancer.
“You don’t quite grasp it when that happens,” Hewer said. “I’m thinking, what’s going to happen?”
Days later he’s at the B.C. Cancer Agency, more tests are done both there and at the Abbotsford hospital, and finally the news goes from “unfortunate” to really bad: Stage 4C cancer on the base of the tongue.
“They gave me a 30 per cent chance to live,” Hewer said. “Well I went into shock at that point. It would have been nice if they had got me at an earlier stage.”
And while missed diagnoses are not uncommon with any doctor, other experienced doctors say a physical examination should have been done. One very experienced doctor said a lump like Hewer’s could go for a month before biopsy, but not a year.
Hewer may be angry at the missed diagnosis by Dr. Cambridge that led to terribly painful and invasive treatments, leaving him unable to eat for months and to this day without tastebuds and a painful ring 360 degrees around his neck. But he says the really guilty party here is the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. (the College).
“They are the most guilty in this,” he said. “They never should have let him practise. I should have never gotten to stage 4…. When I go to a doctor’s office, I trust they are a doctor.
“They put people’s lives at risk.”
The College did recently reprimand Sean Cambridge for failing to disclose he had his medical licence revoked in Saskatchewan when he first applied in B.C.
Hewer is far from alone. The Progress has received nearly a dozen unsolicited complaints about misdiagnoses and poor treatment ranging from negligent bedside manner to allegedly life-threatening mistakes.
Ray White is a trucker who saw Dr. Sean Cambridge. He went to him about five years ago and was diagnosed with a torn meniscus and sent for surgery. He was told he’d be off work for a year. Then the surgeon examined White and said that diagnosis was wrong, what he had was arthritis. About Dr. Cambridge, the surgeon said, “I question his credentials.”
Later, White went to see Dr. Rosemary Cambridge who diagnosed chest pains as a heart attack. After a second scary chest incident, White went to the hospital and was later diagnosed by a cardiologist with atrial fibrillation. He never had a heart attack.
“Had she treated me for a heart attack who knows what may have happened,” White said.
Another patient told The Progress about a diagnosis of a torn tendon that was misdiagnosed as a pulled muscle, leaving him with a deformed bicep. He and others have wondered about a class action lawsuit against the doctors.
While the couple failed their board exams a combined nine times in six years, and frequently Rosemary Cambridge did not even write the exam when she should have, the College gave them extension after extension.
After finally pulling their licence in September 2017, the couple actually appealed to the Health Professions Review Board who rejected their appeal in a decision on Sept. 15, 2017. In that decision, the Board also rebuked the College for the situation.
“These concerns bring us to question precisely how the Registration Committee is serving the public by letting physicians practice with large patient loads for many years without passing the requisite exams, only to then determine that the same physician is not qualified to provide the services based on not passing these exams?”
The College declined to answer numerous questions about the Cambridges, citing privacy legislation.
A response via email did say that the College’s ability to grant provisional registration to enable an applicant to practise under sponsorship and supervision “are tools that assist the health authorities in recruiting foreign-trained physicians.”
The email said also: “Most regulators allow applicants who have not yet completed qualifying exams, or failed to pass qualifying exams, to work for a period of time under supervision.”
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C.’s definition of a “period of time,” however, appears to be different from the College in Saskatchewan, which kicked the couple out quickly. The South Africans first went to Saskatchewan in 2010. Sean had his licence terminated within five months in that province, and Rosemarie didn’t even get pass an initial assessment.
Why they were allowed to practise for six years in B.C., constantly failing exams while providing allegedly substandard care is unknown because the College insists B.C.’s strict privacy laws prevent it from finding out about treatments provided and the outcomes of patients.
“Dr. Sean Cambridge and Dr. Rosemarie Cambridge are former registrants of the College and are no longer practising medicine in B.C.” was the College’s response when asked for an interview about the practice.
There are currently five doctors in the Chilliwack area practising with provisional licences, according to the College.
“Ninety five per cent of physicians who are on the provisional register end up successfully passing their qualifying exams, and move seamlessly to the full register,” the College said in its email.
As for Hewer, he realizes he’s lucky to be alive and he praises the doctors at the B.C. Cancer Agency. During the worst of it, he dropped to 80 pounds, could barely move without pain, and had to have food pumped into his stomach with a tube.
Now he’s getting by; using medical cannabis helps, but it’s a challenge.
“It’s not easy to eat when you don’t have saliva and don’t have tastebuds,” he said. “There is no more ‘yum’ for me. I just gotta eat or I’m going to die.”
Hewer says he’s considering a lawsuit against Dr. Cambridge, the Ministry of Health, and the College.
The Progress was unable to reach Dr. Cambridge for comment.