During the last several weeks, thousands of people in our community have expressed their deep disappointment in the abrupt and unexplained exit of oncologist Dr. Tom Weiner from St. Peter’s Health in Helena.
Some patients of St. Peter's Cancer Treatment Center say he was the only doctor who truly understood their condition and treatment. Others say they might have died if it weren’t for his steadfast commitment to patient care during his 24 years at the local hospital.
Many are fearful of what will happen to them now that their trusted doctor is gone, and St. Peter’s should do everything possible to ensure their needs are being met and their questions are being answered during this traumatic time in their lives.
After Weiner stopped seeing patients last month, the hospital would only confirm that he was “out of the office” for reasons that were being kept private and confidential. Though hospital officials said they legally could not provide any more information, they announced on Nov. 16 that he was on a “leave of absence” and on Nov. 17 that he was no longer an employee.
While we suspect this was a fluid situation that was changing day by day, we were surprised that the hospital initially would not answer the Independent Record's questions about whether Weiner was out of the office temporarily or permanently, who was taking over for his patients, or whether that would affect wait times and scheduling.
According to a lawsuit filed against St. Peter’s, the hospital failed to notify some patients that Weiner was no longer their doctor and that a different doctor was assigned to provide their care. Some patients had to reschedule life-saving treatments or other critical appoints and others have been assigned a new doctor every few visits who is unfamiliar with the care they need, the complaint says.
The hospital also declined an invitation to a Nov. 16 community meeting that was attended by many of Weiner’s patients, local elected officials and other stakeholders and organized by Lowell Bartels of East Helena, who said he has helped raise funds for the Cancer Treatment Center in the past. This would have been a good opportunity to reassure the community that they have plans in place to continue meeting the needs of the many people who trusted him with their lives.
This week, St. Peter's CEO Wade Johnson penned an open letter to the community that ran on Thursday's IR editorial page, saying exactly that — the hospital has plans in place to care for Weiner's patients, and considers that care a top priority.
Johnson's letter is certainly a good, if belated, start at engagement and communication on these issues. But it is only that — a start. The test will come as the hospital follows up — with patients, and with the community.
A cancer diagnosis is one of the most disruptive and frightening events many people will ever experience, and we empathize with Weiner’s many patients who are now questioning who will care for them as they battle life and death issues every day.