Medical Societies Issue Bold Statement of Physician Support

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred

April 05, 2020

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At least one physician has been fired for speaking out about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in his hospital. Another was informed he couldn't wear a mask brought from home for fear of scaring the patients. One by one the stories piled up, and as they did, medical societies and organizations have issued statements with unprecedented speed, all in support of healthcare workers.

Finally, the Council of Medical Specialty Societies (CMSS) had enough: it posted its own statement on behalf of all of its 45 member organizations, representing 800,000 physicians.

"You wouldn't send a soldier into battle wearing a bathing suit," said Laurence Wellikson, MD, the CEO of the CMSS member group Society of Hospital Medicine. "We're asking for the same thing."

Pre-COVID-19 efforts at coordinating policy statements typically took a month or two, Wellikson said. Different organizations will debate relative importance of policies and weigh in on wordsmithing. This time was different. "Every organization — especially the ones on the frontlines — was hearing awful things from doctors and we all wanted to fast-track this and get something out there."

"Within two days we were able to reach complete consensus," said Helen Burstin, MD, MPH, the CEO of CMSS. "If there was ever a time for our societies to come together with one voice to protect physicians, all healthcare workers, and patients, it's now."

The coalition's five-point statement urges the government to ensure adequate supplies of PPE, supports the recent Joint Commission statement that allows healthcare workers to use their own PPE, reminds institutions of their responsibility to provide protection for their workers, and declares that a nationwide reporting system on PPE is needed.

The statement also informs hospitals, quite pointedly, that employees should not face any form of retribution for voicing concerns about health and safety, even to the media.

CMSS issued the statement, in part, because of "all the press we have seen about the threats and retaliation against clinicians if they reported," Burstin said. "We wanted to say this publicly so that our members know it's really critical they have this chance to share what they believe endangers their own safety as well as the safety of their patients."

That echoes some of the individual organizations, said Robert McLean, MD, president of American College of Physicians (ACP), also a CMSS member.

"Our ethics policy is that physicians need to be able to speak out as part of professional and ethical respect on issues that affect public health and safety," he said.

US doctors have been ringing the alarm bell to decry that hospitals and their employee-contracting companies don't seem to embrace those ethics. Ming Lin, MD, one of several who have received media attention recently, spoke up on Facebook about inadequate PPE and crowded waiting rooms at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington. After doing so, he said, he was fired.

Many of the individual organizations have also posted their own statements. (The ACP's April 1 statement, for example, is similar to that of CMSS). While some organizations will help counsel individual doctors facing retribution from their hospitals, McLean said their primary motivation "is because we realize the importance of raising public awareness and putting pressure on government and regulatory agencies."

Sheila Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter @MilepostMedia.

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