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Ontario’s top doctor leaves post after province declines to extend her contract

Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer.

NATHAN DENETTE/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario's widely respected top doctor, an infectious disease expert best known for leading the province through the H1N1 crisis, has left her post after the province declined to extend her contract.

Arlene King's five-year term as chief medical officer of health ended on Saturday, according to an internal letter from the province's deputy health minister obtained by The Globe and Mail.

"Dr. King can look back with pride on many accomplishments during her tenure," Robert Bell wrote in the letter, dated June 12. "Arriving in the midst of the H1N1 global pandemic, Dr. King demonstrated strong leadership during a difficult time for the province."

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A permanent replacement has not been named, but in the meantime, the province's associate chief medical officer of health, Robin Williams, has been elevated to the acting chief's job.

It is not clear why Dr. King's term was not extended. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care would say only that the law governing the chief medical officer's appointment "does not provide for automatic renewal."

"During the election period, the Legislative Assembly was dissolved and therefore unable to recommend an appointment," David Jensen said by e-mail.

However, the government would have known long before the snap election call that Dr. King's term was ending, said Richard Schabas, the medical officer of health for Hastings and Prince Edward counties.

"I think we were all expecting an announcement probably some months ago, either about an extension, a reappointment or, I guess, for that matter, about a process for selecting a new chief medical officer of health," he said. "So I have to say that the announcement [of Dr. King's departure,] I think, was a surprise on several levels."

Asked whether she left voluntarily or if the government declined to renew her term, Dr. King would only say by e-mail that: "My 5-year term of appointment as CMOH expired on June 14."

She went on to share her fond memories of leading the province's 36 local public health units and Public Health Ontario, the collection of agencies that promote and protect the health of Ontarians by combatting infectious diseases, co-ordinating vaccinations and educating the public about healthy lifestyles, among other activities.

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Dr. King highlighted the two reports she wrote after the H1N1 pandemic swept through the country in 2009 and called the province's first strategic plan for the public health sector her proudest accomplishment.

"It describes what it will take for Ontarians to be the healthiest people in the world, supported by the best public health system in the world," Dr. King said by e-mail, adding that, "although I don't know what the future holds, I know it will be an exciting one."

David Mowat, the medical officer of health for Peel Region, called Dr. King's departure a "surprise," and praised her stewardship during the 2009 pandemic. "Compared to our performance in the past, it was a huge improvement," Dr. Mowat said. "[A] massive number of doses of vaccine [were] given. It was quite a challenge, and she was definitely the leader of that exercise."

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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