Physician groups back doctors' freedom to speak out about coronavirus conditions

Young female doctor sitting at desk in front of computer covering face with hand in frustration
An emergency room physician in Washington was fired after he spoke out about his hospital's coronavirus response. (Getty Images/PRImageFactory)

Given reports that doctors and other medical professionals are being silenced about coronavirus conditions, the country’s two largest physician groups say doctors have the right to be heard.

Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Physicians (ACP) issued statements Wednesday supporting the rights of physicians to speak out on COVID-19 care conditions.

Both also said they support the right of physicians to bring their own personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, respirators and eye protection if their healthcare systems cannot provide the equipment needed to protect them from coronavirus exposure.

The statements come amid reports that doctors and nurses across the country are being told not to speak to the media and not to post on social media about their experiences, including a lack of PPE.

In one case, an emergency room physician, Ming Lin, M.D., who worked at Peace­Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington, was fired after he publicly criticized the hospital’s coronavirus response.

In a video on his website, popular doctor Zubin Damania, M.D., although he is better known as social media star ZDoggMD, reacted to the news, posting what he called “A COVID Clinician Manifesto” to stop silencing doctors.

In a statement, the ACP, the largest medical specialty organization in the U.S., said it supports doctors’ “ability to speak out in a professional manner regarding conditions related to the care of COVID-19 patients without retribution or disciplinary action.”

“ACP is concerned by reports that some physicians who have spoken out about a lack of PPE have been terminated or otherwise disciplined. Physicians who have concerns about conditions and practices related to care of COVID-19 patients should have the right to speak up within their workplaces and more broadly without fear of retaliation to achieve needed change for the health and safety of physicians and patients,” said Robert McLean, M.D., ACP's president.

The AMA, the country’s largest physician group, agreed. “No employer should restrict physicians’ freedom to advocate for the best interest of their patients” said AMA President Patrice Harris, M.D.

“In recent weeks as physicians have battled the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of when and how to express concern about conditions and safety has become a flashpoint for physicians and their hospital employers,” Harris said.

RELATED: 'Please help us'—Many primary care practices paint a dire picture with lack of PPE, tests

“In these cases where hospital conditions or policies conflict with the best interests of patients, some employed physicians have reported policies by hospitals to prevent public disclosure and discussion of the situation,” she said. “In response, the American Medical Association calls for reinforcing the principle that places patients’ welfare as the first priority in any situation where the interests of physicians and hospitals are in conflict.”

Both the AMA and ACP said they support physicians and front-line healthcare workers using their own face masks and respirators.

“As physicians and other frontline health care workers across the U.S. continue to face dire shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), the AMA fully supports them in using their own face masks and respirators when these critical resources are unavailable and not provided by their employer,” said Harris.

“The people working round the clock to combat this virus should not be penalized or punished for taking precautions necessary to protect themselves, their patients, and their families from the spread of COVID-19,” she said, noting The Joint Commission updated its guidance (PDF), clarifying its policy does not prohibit healthcare workers from bringing their own PPE into work.

The ACP released a new policy (PDF) saying physicians can and should expect their institutions to provide PPE.

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