As hospitals around the country scramble to treat an influx of COVID-19 patients, some doctors and nurses are saying they are afraid of retaliation if they speak out to the press about their concerns over how their respective hospitals are responding to the pandemic.
These fears seemingly came to fruition last week when an emergency room doctor at a hospital in Washington state told the Seattle Times that he was terminated after speaking out on both his Facebook page and to the Times about the lack of protective equipment for health care workers at his hospital, PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Bellingham.
PeaceHealth’s Northwest chief executive, Charles Prosper, declined to comment on the doctor’s situation, citing personnel policy. Dr. Worth Everett, the medical director of PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s ED, said that the claims about the lack of personal protective equipment were “misleading inaccuracies.”
“There are stories of no masks, no gowns, no beds, and no equipment that unfortunately exist in other parts of the nation. For right now, that is not the case in our emergency department and our hospital,” Everett said in a statement to TheWrap. “We also acknowledge that there may come a time when there are real shortages and we have worked on conserving strategies now in anticipation for that day.”
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that health care workers at the NYU Langone Health system have been told they will be “subject to disciplinary action, including termination” if they speak to the media without authorization. A spokesperson for NYU Langone Health told TheWrap that a media policy has always existed at the hospital, before the coronavirus pandemic, and that “no one has been terminated at any of our NYU Langone health facilities for talking to the press.”
“Because information related to coronavirus is constantly evolving, it is in the best interest of our staff and the institution that only those with the most updated information are permitted to address these issues with the media,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Still, some doctors and nurses say they are afraid to speak out at all in fear of their hospitals retaliating against them.
“I’m hearing widespread stories from physicians across the country and they are all saying: ‘We have these stories that we think are important to get out, but we are being told by our hospital systems that we are not allowed to speak to the press, and if we do so there will be extreme consequences,'” Nisha Mehta, a radiologist who runs two Facebook groups for physicians, told Bloomberg.
A spokesperson for the Washington State Nurses Association, a union that represents 900 nurses at Bellingham’s PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s Medical Center, also said the group was “strongly advising” its members “not to speak to the media because of the real fear that they could be disciplined or fired for doing so.”
Despite this, the union still strongly condemned the termination of the ER doctor and said that health care workers were being “silenced” by hospitals for “speaking the truth.”
“Nurses and other health care workers are being muzzled in an attempt by hospitals to preserve their image,” the WSNA said in a statement last week. “No health care worker should face being disciplined or fired for speaking the truth. Doctors, nurses and other health care workers on the frontlines know firsthand what patients need and where our health care system is falling short in its response to COVID-19.”