Once-noted Toronto researcher who falsified data wins medical licence back

TORONTO — An internationally known Canadian researcher stripped of her medical licence for falsifying scientific data and then trying to cover up her deceptions is being allowed to return to practise as a physician even though she remains barred from doing any research.

In a recent 3-2 decision, a disciplinary committee with Ontario's medical regulator concluded Dr. Sophie Jamal had shown remorse, had been punished enough, and was at no risk to reoffend.

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"Dr. Jamal has undertaken a critical process of self-examination and personal growth with the aim of understanding the psychological underpinnings of her previous misconduct, and ensuring as much as possible that this will not be repeated in the future," the panel found.

Jamal, 53, was a prominent osteoporosis researcher at Women's College Hospital in Toronto when it was discovered her findings were fraudulent. Among other things, records show she changed patient charts, tampered with supplies of blood and urine, and tried to blame colleagues and a research assistant.

"She instead spun a web of deceit and deception in increasingly frantic efforts to avoid exposure," the panel of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario said.

Jamal was finally forced to resign positions at the hospital and at the University of Toronto in October 2015 and went to work as a clinical endocrinologist at a Toronto clinic.

Her exposure led to several publications, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, having to retract articles. Her fraudulent research put patients at risk, and caused adverse effects for some enrolled in clinical trials based on her work.

Her colleagues, the hospital and the profession at large all took a reputational hit as a result of her "deceitful, manipulative and devious behaviours," the panel said.

It was, as one panel member said, likely the "worst case of research fraud dealt with by the college in its history."

As a result, the panel revoked Jamal's medical licence in March 2018. In February, she applied for reinstatement, which was opposed by the college.

Jamal tied her fraudulent conduct in part to her mental health and pressure from parents she said were overbearing.

"Essentially, she stated that she felt driven to succeed academically in order to maintain the facade of high achievement which had been instilled in her since childhood," the panel said.

She said she had suffered from depression for years, was under psychiatric care, and took medication to deal with the problem. She testified that she understood the impact of her misdeeds, apologized for her acts, and said she had begun to repay $253,000 in research money.

For its part, the college pointed to her "history of extensive dishonesty" and argued she was not credible, had not accepted responsibility, and was manipulative.

The disciplinary committee, however, sided with Jamal, saying it found her credible. It cited favourable testimony from several doctors, including her psychiatrist. The panel also noted Jamal no longer did research, had practised as an endocrinologist without problems, and had personal and professional supports.

Two panel members, including its chairman, disagreed. Among other things, they argued she had shown little remorse and that it was unclear whether she could be trusted. Confidence in the profession, they said, would be undermined by returning her licence.

"I have significant concerns about Dr. Jamal's sense of decency, integrity and honesty," Dr. Peeter Poldre wrote. "Dr. Jamal has not yet fully dealt with the professional aspects of her past misconduct."

Besides the research ban, the panel ordered monitoring and supervision as well as ongoing therapy for her mental health issues.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 27, 2020.

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