Doc Suspended for Exposing Poor Social-Distancing Practices, She Says

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred

April 27, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

Obstetrician Ana Sanchez, MD, was forced to abruptly leave a laboring patient when St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, suspended her privileges and barred her from campus.

It was retribution pure and simple, says Sanchez, a private-practice physician who is pursuing legal action against the hospital. She had been trying to get the hospital to address what she believed to be inadequate policies on personal protective equipment (PPE). Finally, fed up by their inaction, on March 27 Sanchez posted a video on Facebook showing about 25 hospital workers lined up close to each other outside a local eatery called Blue Bowl.

The business, one of a small chain of cafes specializing in acai bowls, meant well: They were offering free bowls to healthcare workers. But Sanchez worried that the hospital employees she saw — many of whom appeared to be clerks or receptionists, she said — weren't properly trained in the importance of physical distancing and PPE.

In the video, a visibly upset Sanchez asked those in line if they worked at nearby hospitals, and several confirmed that they did. Then she chastised them, asking if by waiting there, unmasked, they were "getting coronavirus so you can bring it back to the hospital next week?" The 3-minute clip got 13,000 views on Facebook in the first 48 hours. 

"I think administrators trained them poorly and downplayed the risk of COVID so that people wouldn't demand protection, wouldn't ask for masks," Sanchez said. "[The administrators] were ignoring my questions, not answering my emails and texts, and in general, not following the scientific guidelines for preventing spread." Concerned for her patients and her community, she said, "I posted the video because I was desperate."

Before the incident at Blue Bowl, Sanchez had voiced concerns about PPE policies at the hospital. "Nurses were attending deliveries without wearing any mask at all," she wrote in an email to Medscape. "And sitting in the nursing station one foot apart from each other without wearing any masks! It was dangerous for patients and staff." St. Joseph's chief of staff and chief medical officer didn't answer her emails and texts about her concerns, she said.

Soon after the video was posted, the hospital instituted universal masking protocols and Blue Bowl started delivering food to hospitals to eliminate the lines.

In a letter to Sanchez dated March 31, the medical executive committee of the hospital said it was revoking privileges she'd had since 1992 because she had intimidated and harassed medical personnel and engaged in unprofessional conduct.

"Your practice creates an imminent risk of harm to patients," the letter reads, and says she "attempted, during a pandemic, to instill fear and a lack of confidence in the public by indicating that hospital personnel were knowingly bringing the coronavirus back to hospital patients."

Then, according to a letter reporting her suspension to the Medical Board of California, the medical executive committee voted to continue the suspension and require Sanchez to complete a "Fitness for Duty Evaluation to include a psychiatric component." In her 28 years at the hospital, no one had ever questioned her psychiatric health, Sanchez says.

When Medscape reached out to the hospital, a spokesperson stated, "Any action taken by St. Joseph Hospital or the Medical Executive Committee is privileged, and we are unable to comment."

To date, more than 50 people have signed a change.org petition asking the hospital to reinstate Sanchez's privileges. Although her colleagues support her, Sanchez noted, many feel they're not in a position to speak up — they can't afford to lose their hospital privileges.

"Everyone is scared," she said. "Morally they're on my side, but they're not speaking up." Sanchez added that her own risk was lower than theirs, because her kids are through college and she retains her privileges at another hospital. She knew she'd take a financial hit for her activism but said it was worth it.

 "I wouldn't take it back," she said, "because I feel like I saved people's lives."

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

Do you have information on how your hospital or health network is responding to PPE shortages, gag orders, or other related issues? Has anyone you know faced disciplinary measures for speaking out? Write to us: news@medscape.net .

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