By Tim Hinterberger, ALPHA president
You may have see the Nov. 3, 2021, commentary in the Anchorage Daily News with the same title as this blog post. It’s by Pat Dougherty, a former editor of the paper. I’ve had the same concerns for a while, but he beat me to the punch in getting his thoughts into print. Here’s some of what he said:
“On Oct. 14, leaders of the Alaska Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics took the unusual step of writing a public letter rebutting and condemning the public comments of Dr. Michael Savitt, a pediatrician who is the chief medical officer of the Anchorage health department. That was extraordinary because doctors are loath to publicly criticize other doctors. I know still other doctors in the community are privately expressing their distress and asking each other what they can do to curb such medical misconduct.
“I am a layman and in no way an expert on medical ethics, but I can read the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, which the medical board has adopted to apply to doctors in Alaska. I have seen the conduct of some Alaska doctors clearly violate that code of ethics, and I have filed formal complaints with the medical board, which has a responsibility to see that the code is upheld.”
Mr. Dougherty goes on to urge all Alaskans who agree with him to write to the Alaska State Medical Board and tell its members that Alaskans want clear guidelines that prevent doctors from dispensing distorted, misleading and outright false medical information to advance their personal political agendas. Within minutes of reading his appeal, I was at work writing the following letter that I immediately emailed to the Board.
“Dear members of the Alaska State Medical Board,
As a medical educator with more than 30 years experience, and as president of the Alaska Public Health Association, I’m writing to ask you to address the issue of Alaska-licensed physicians who publicly advocate ineffective or even harmful medical treatments for COVID-19, discourage members of the public from seeking efficacious, standard-of-care treatments, publicly attack and undermine confidence in FDA-approved vaccines, or claim that masking to prevent virus spread is harmful, all of this contrary to the best scientific research and the consensus of the country’s leading medical experts.
In medical school, we train physicians in the basic sciences and how to examine and treat patients. But we also teach them how to understand and evaluate research, and we expect them to understand that they will continue to be part of the medical academy long after they graduate and enter practice. Having received training at public expense, and having been granted medical degrees and certifications from professionally recognized programs, they are beholden to practice within the established scientific consensus.
The way the scientific medical consensus evolves is not through rogue physicians telling the public that the establishment is wrong. Rather, any physician who believes a current prevention or treatment is wrong can write a paper and send it to an academic journal. That paper will be reviewed by experts, and if they believe the author has made a reasonable argument, the paper will be published for all medical scientists to read. If enough of the recognized experts find the argument compelling, it will lead to new research that could overturn the consensus. That’s the way it works.
There are a small number of doctors in the US who question the effectiveness or safety of vaccines or who promote treatments that the medical establishment has concluded are worthless. Kaiser Health News identified about 20 doctors nationwide who have made false or misleading claims about COVID-19, on top of the “Disinformation Dozen,” a group of top superspreaders of COVID vaccine misinformation on social media named in a 2021 report by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Are those the doctors we should listen to, rather than the heads of the NIH Infection Disease division and the CDC? Are they heroes, bravely standing up to an unjust, dominating system? No. They’re potentially dangerous, self-serving attention seekers.
Alaska should not tolerate physicians abusing the public’s trust. They need to remember that the only reason people listen to them and respect their advice is because they went through a medical school that’s accredited by the Association of American Medical Colleges, and they completed accredited postgraduate education programs that were supported by federal Medicare funding. Now that they’re practicing, they have no authority to disregard the medical establishment that has placed them in positions of trust.
I ask the Medical Board to address this issue now, before more harm is done. The Board should publish, at its earliest opportunity, an advisory statement outlining its view of the ethical requirements of Alaska doctors with respect to the public dissemination of false, misleading or dangerous medical information, and the potential consequences of such conduct. In doing so, the Board would be warning doctors that certain kinds of behavior violate the Board’s adopted code of ethics and could lead to sanctions or reprimands or even, in the most extreme cases, license suspensions.
Timothy Hinterberger, PhD
Professor, WWAMI School of Medical Education
University of Alaska Anchorage
University of Washington School of Medicine
So now I pass the baton on to all of you who agree with Mr. Dougherty and me. Please send your thoughts to the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.