Friday, April 10, 2020

A Pandemic of Silence: Hospital Managers Intimidate and Punish Coronavirus Whistle-Blowers

Under cover of a pandemic, managers and executives of hospitals, hospital systems, and other organizations that provide direct patient care are trying to silence health care professionals who point out leadership's failings.  We have seen a distressing parade of whistle-blowers intimidated and punished.

On March 25, an article in Medscape stated the basic problem.Per an anonymous orthopedic surgeon:

'It’s very clear; no one is allowed to speak for the institution or of the institution,' he said in an interview. 'We get a daily warning about being very prudent about posts on personal accounts. They’ve talked about this with respect to various issues: case numbers, case severity, testing availability, [and] PPEs.'

This clearly is not rare.

The silencing of physicians by hospitals about PPE shortages and other COVID-19 issues has become widespread, said Nisha Mehta, MD, a physician advocate and community leader who writes about PPE on social media. Physicians are being warned not to speak or post publicly about their COVID-19 experiences, including PPE shortages, case specifics, and the percentage of full hospital beds, Dr. Mehta said in an interview. In some cases, physicians who have posted have been forced to take down the posts or have faced retribution for speaking out, she said.

'There’s definitely a big fear among physicians, particularly employed physicians, in terms of what the consequences may be for telling their stories,' Dr. Mehta said. 'I find that counterproductive. I understand not inducing panic, but these are real stories that are important for people to understand so they do stay home and increase the systemic pressure to get sufficient PPE, so that we can preserve our health care workforce for a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.'

Here is our round-up of specific cases, in the order that they came to light

Three Cases, Two Anonymous of the Silencing of Health Care Professionals who Blew the Whistle about Coronavirus Safety Issues

The Medscape article included:

an Indiana hospitalist who took to social media to ask for masks for hospitals in his area says he was immediately reprimanded by his management after the posts came to light.

Another frontline physician who works at a large New York hospital, said staff have been cautioned not to talk with the media and to be careful what they post on social media regarding COVID-19. The general rule is that only information approved by administrators can be shared

The Medscape article also detailed this case:

 [a] nurse, Lauri Mazurkiewicz, sent an email to staffers at Northwestern Memorial Hospital stating the surgical masks provided by the hospital were less effective against airborne particles than were N95 masks, according to a lawsuit filed March 23 in Cook County Circuit Court. Ms. Mazurkiewicz was terminated the next day in retaliation for her email, the lawsuit alleges.

In the short time since that article was published, more specific, and egregious examples have appeared

Emergency Physician Employed by TeamHealth, Owned by Private Equity Firm Blackstone, Fired at the Behest of PeaceHealth for "Inciting Public Fear"

Perhaps the best documented case is that of Dr Ming Lin.  As reported by the Seattle Times on March 29, 2020,

Dr. Ming Lin worked at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center for 17 years until he was removed on Friday by TeamHealth, a national staffing firm under contract to provide the hospital’s emergency department personnel. Lin became a national avatar for frustrated health care professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak by speaking up in the press and on social media with pleas for more medical supplies and stronger standards to protect health care workers combating the virus.

On March 16, Lin posted a letter on Facebook he’d sent to PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s chief medical officer, outlining how the hospital was mismanaging patient COVID-19 testing and exposing health care personnel and patients to unnecessary risks. He decried the hospital’s internal bureaucracy that prevented some doctors from ordering coronavirus tests, including a 'ludicrous' requirement that a flu test be completed before providing patients coronavirus screenings. Lin also criticized the hospital’s lack of a triage tent outside the emergency room to screen and test patients, to limit exposure of other patients and staff to potential infection.

'PeaceHealth is so far behind when it comes to protecting patients and the community, but even worse when it comes to protecting the staff,' Lin’s letter said.

The hospital's immediate response was to ask Dr Lin to "retract" or "recant" what he said.  When he refused, first

TeamHealth said Lin technically was not fired and remains employed by the company, but will no longer work at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. A PeaceHealth St. Joseph spokesman on Friday confirmed Lin’s termination but declined to comment further because Lin was not directly employed by the hospital.

Note that:

TeamHealth was acquired by the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in 2016 for $6 billion. Since then, the company came under fire for a pattern of suing uninsured and low-income patients who were unable to pay their medical bills, but discontinued the practice after it gained public attention in the news.

An April 6, 2020 article in the Seattle Times disclosed the hospital's rationale for firing Dr Lin

Richard DeCarlo, chief operating officer of PeaceHealth, which operates Bellingham’s St. Joseph Medical Center, likened Lin’s public warnings about workplace coronavirus concerns to 'yelling fire in a crowded theater.'

that is,

allegedly inciting public fear by criticizing the hospital’s emergency precautions.

thus begging the question of what it was the public might fear.  Perhaps he was afraid they would fear going to his hospital, thus suppressing its revenues?

Note further that Mr DeCarlo, according to his official PeaceHealth biography, has no apparent experience of expertise in medicine, health care, or public health. The CEO apparently is a registered dietitian with no recent experience in medicine, health care, or public health.

NYU Langone Health Threatens to Fire Physicians who Talk to Press Without Authorization

The Wall Street Journal  reported on March 31, 2020 that after the head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone sent a message to physicians implying that they should consider withholding ventilators from some critically ill patients, the physicians

also got got a reminder not to speak to news reporters without permission from NYU Langone's Office of Communications and Marketing.

Kathy Lewis, executive vice president for communications and marketing, said in an email that NYU Langone's longstanding policy required faculty, residents and staff to forward all media inquiries to her.

'Anyone who does not adhere to this policy, or who speaks or disseminates information to the media without explicit permission of the Office of Communication and Marketing, will be subject to disciplinary action, including termination,' Ms Lewis wrote.

A blog post from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) decried this threat to health care professionals' free speech about pandemic preparedness stated:

free speech and academic freedom do not become less important during a crisis, and that it’s critical that faculty members — many of them serving on the front lines of the pandemic — be able to share information with the broader public.

'It is precisely in times of crisis that it is most important that lines of communication to the public be open,' said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s executive director. 'These faculty members are there because they’re the experts. Inhibiting their ability to communicate important information about COVID-19 presents enormous risks.'

Consider also the source of the threat.  Note that according to her official bio,

Kathy Lewis, executive vice president for communications and marketing, is responsible for the advancement of NYU Langone Health’s unique brand identity as one of the nation’s premier centers for excellence in clinical care, biomedical research, and medical education.

Furthermore, Ms Lewis' qualifications to threaten physicians with termination appear to be limited to:

a BA from Montclair State University and an MA from Seton Hall University.

So the implication is that even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, the managers running NYU Langone think upholding the organization's brand identity comes before transparency and honest communication.

Note that this is not the first time Langone has put its brand identity ahead of transparency about disaster preparedness.  Back in 2012, after the medical center suffered a blackout and other problems due to super-storm Sandy, its board chairman, Mr Kenneth Langone, whose name the medical center carries, vociferously tried to avoid institutional accountability for poor disaster planning (look here.)  Mr Langone, a founder of Home Depot, who as described here had previously boasted

I am a fat cat, I'm not ashamed

is a big booster of President Trump (look here).

Other New York Hospitals Warn Health Care Professionals Not to Talk to Journalists

On April 1, 2020, Politico reported

As hospitals across New York City are filling up with patients gasping for air, health care executives are slapping gag orders on their workers to control the narrative amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Specific instances were:

Northwell Health recently sent medical professionals an email informing them all interviews with news media must first be cleared through the public relations department, a hospital employee told POLITICO.


Mount Sinai distributed its own set of guidelines discouraging speaking to the press and dictating social media policies as more health care professionals stepped forward to report problems in their hospitals. The guidance coincided with images shared on social media of employees wearing trash bags over their regular gear — an alarming picture from inside one of New York City’s premier and deep-pocketed health systems that has shaped public opinion of the shortage of personal protective equipment.

The email did not contain any reference to the ongoing pandemic or disciplinary action that could be taken, though some employees said the threat is present.

'I am very afraid I would be fired for [sharing the guidance with a reporter], which just makes me think they are more afraid of their image than actually having the patients cared for,' said one employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. 'I am a valuable asset, yet the fact that I am speaking up for my patients, colleagues and myself would have me terminated is not okay. It is an injustice that they overrule us with fear.'

A more recent New York Times article, from April 9, 2020, added:

'Do not respond or speak to any reporters, as well as current or former employees, regarding a pending news story,' wrote David A. Feinberg, the chief marketing and communications officer at the Mount Sinai Health System, in an email to all faculty and students on March 26.

In response,

health care workers on a coronavirus task force at Mount Sinai said they are demanding 'zero tolerance of employer retaliation or threats against those who are speaking up,' in a letter distributed among staffers and obtained by POLITICO.


Eleven medical professionals across various health systems in New York City told POLITICO they signed nondisclosure agreements, had contracts that stipulated they not speak with the press without consent from their employer or feared losing their jobs if they spoke out publicly.

Mississippi Physicians Fired After Speaking Out

Health care professionals outside of states with the highest current coronavirus prevalence are not necessarily protected from punishment if they speak out.  On April 5, 2020, Mississippi Today reported:

An Oxford doctor is one of at least two Mississippi physicians claiming they were terminated for speaking out about their employers’ safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Samantha Houston says she lost her job of four years at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North in late March for 'disruptive' behavior. In the weeks prior, Houston, a hospitalist, used Facebook to organize a local donation drive for masks and baby monitors so that hospital staff could cut down on face-to-face interactions with patients.

Houston, 34, also says she sent several emails to colleagues raising concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for some workers.

'Every idea I had was just shut down and dismissed, and I just got very frustrated,' Houston told Mississippi Today. 'I just feel like they were not advocating for our safety, and that was what was so frustrating for me. And it really wasn’t even my safety. I felt safe enough because I had an N95 mask and I was able to get in there, but I felt like the nurses were not as safe.'


Dr. Jennifer Bryan, who chairs the Mississippi State Medical Association board of trustees, told Mississippi Today that she knows of at least one other doctor in the state who was also fired for advocating for stronger safety measures.

A Los Angeles and Another New York Health Professional Punished

An article in the New York Times, April 9, 2020 included:

'They’re very protective of their reputation in the community,' said Jhonna Porter, a nurse who was suspended from West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles after raising safety concerns in a private Facebook group and publicly on her own page, including appeals for equipment. 'If anything seems like it might make them look bad, they’re going to stomp on it quick.'


A doctor at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, Deena Elkafrawi, was reprimanded after the British publication Metro quoted her as saying, 'I am scared that going to work could kill me,' according to the Committee of Interns and Residents, a national association that represented her.

Reactions to Silencing Health Care Professionals

Physicians Societies

Two physicians' societies have condemned hospital managers threatening or punishing health care professionals who spoke out about problems with hospitals' responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Per an April 4, 2020 Medscape article,

'Physicians have a professional and ethical responsibility and need to be able to speak out on these types of issues,' Robert McLean, MD, president of the American College of Physicians, told Medscape Medical News

The ACP is one of several professional organizations that have come out against attempts to silence physicians in recent days. Earlier this week, the ACP released a statement supporting physicians who shared concerns about their workplace conditions and lack of adequate PPE, while also rebuking attempts by hospital systems to silence clinician complaints or activism.

'We as a college felt the need to speak out about that and indicate that this is completely wrong,' said McLean. 'Physicians who are speaking out to make people aware of issues of public health and of public health concern should not be at risk of having their employment terminated or otherwise disciplined.'

According to the ACP's ethics policy, physicians who are able should speak out about public health issues for their safety and the safety of their patients, he said. 'The benefit to patients is that problems are identified and not swept under the rug.'

On Wednesday, the American Medical Association (AMA) also put out a short statement in support of physicians' right to advocate for their patients in the current climate:

'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.'

The hospital managers trade association responded by minimizing the problem.

When contacted by Medscape Medical News to comment on these reports, the American Hospital Association (AHA) referred to a letter sent by AHA President and CEO Richard Pollack on March 27 to the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, in response to a complaint filed by the group on behalf of themselves and 54 other organizations.

'Outside of the anecdotal reports you shared, the AHA has not heard any reports of hospitals or health systems restricting the free speech of physicians, nurses, or others regarding the conditions related to COVID-19,' the letter reads.

I wonder if the AHA is now aware of all the cases listed above?

Frontline Health Care Professionals

An April 9, 2020, article in StatNews discussed widespread anger among health care professionals over responses to coronavirus from health care leaders, including local and national government leaders, but also hospital leadership.  In particular,

Among the physicians, there’s a growing fear that they’ll face repercussions if they speak out.


'The thought of being fired right now, when my patients need me the most, is even more terrifying than the idea of potentially getting ill from Covid-19,' the Los Angeles primary care physician said.

Whistleblower International Network

The Whistleblower International Network (WIN) wrote a protest letter saying the coronavirus pandemic has led to "the largest attack on whistleblower in the world."

Coronavirus whistleblowers have been exposing inadequate health system capacity and delivery, public procurement problems, violations of health and safety and labor law, inequitable and ill-prepared global supply chains, unfair competition practices and market abuses, and large-scale violations of personal privacy rights. Employers and public authorities have responded to many of the doctors, scientists, and other frontline workers who told the truth by firing them. In countries like the US, UK, and Italy, such termination of employment is illegal whistleblower retaliation, but that hasn’t stopped employers. Other countries such as China, India, and Poland, employees don’t have any whistleblower rights on paper at all. In either scenario, employer retaliation chills others from engaging in public interest speech, which serves the overall mission of preventing the truth from getting to the community. The act of keeping the truth from the public during a pandemic is gross negligence, which is the deliberate and reckless disregard for the safety and reasonable treatment of others. Every time a whistleblower is retaliated against, the public’s rights are being trampled on too. Indeed, we are all victims in the wake of the largest attack on whistleblowers in the world.

The letter concluded:

Suppressing the truth is a clear and present danger to public health and safety that could turn the pandemic into a modern Black Plague. Employers and governments are silencing their early warning systems, but the effect is trans-national. The outrage must be as well.

Why Are Hospital Managers So Quick to Silence Health Care Professionals?

Thus threats against physicians and other health care professionals who blow the whistle about patient care and safety issues, and dangers to health care professionals in the era of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to continue. 

In medicine and health care, there is a long and sorry history of management trying to silence whistle-blowers who might put the leadership in a bad light.  As noted in the March 25 Medscape article,

John Mandrola, MD, a Louisville, Ky.–based cardiologist who has written about the recent muzzling of frontline physicians with respect to the coronavirus, said he is not surprised that some hospitals are preventing physicians from sharing their experience

'Before C19, in many hospital systems, there was a culture of fear amongst employed clinicians,' he said. 'Employed clinicians see other employed physicians being terminated for speaking frankly about problems. It takes scant few of these cases to create a culture of silence.'

We have been posting about problems with management and governance in health care for a long time.  Some of these problems seem to be grossly manifest in cases in which whistleblowers were threatened or punished to inspire silence, and may explain why the practice continues even in a time of pandemic.


In some cases above, the executives threatening to silence health care professionals were themselves not health care professionals, and seemed to have no direct medical, health care, or public health care experience. In two cases, executives in charge of  communications or marketing intimidated professionals to secure their silence. This implicates managerialism as a source of the problem.

Per an article from the June, 2015 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (look here):
- businesses of all types are now largely run by generic managers, trained in management but not necessarily knowledgeable about the details of the particular firm's business
- this change was motivated by neoliberalism (also known as economism or market fundamentalism)
- managerialism now affects all kinds of organizations, including health care, educational and scientific organizations
- managerialism makes short-term revenue the first priority of all organizations
- managerialism undermines the health care mission and the values of health care professionals

Such generic managers, who have sworn no oaths to put patient care ahead of all other concerns, may have few qualms about silencing whistle-blowers to protect their organizations' and their own reputations. 

Putting Revenue Ahead of Patients' and Health Care Professionals' Safety

In several cases, hospital management seemed more concerned about loss of patients and revenue resulting from degradation of their hospitals' brand identity or reputation than about patients' and professionals' safety.

As noted above, managers of hospitals are increasingly from business, not health care backgrounds.  Whatever their background, they seem more likely to be influenced by currently fashionable management dogma.  A dominant dogma in management is that pursuit of shareholder value comes before all else.  Even though many, but not all hospitals are still ostensibly non-profit, many hospital managers have likely been influenced by this dogma.  As we posted here, quoting Lazonick:

in 1983, two financial economists, Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago and Michael Jensen of the University of Rochester, co-authored two articles in the Journal of Law and Economics which extolled corporate honchos who focused on 'maximizing shareholder value' — by which they meant using corporate resources to boost stock prices, however short the time-frame. In 1985 Jensen landed a higher profile pulpit at Harvard Business School. Soon, shareholder-value ideology became the mantra of thousands of MBA students who were unleashed in the corporate world.

Lazonick added:

When the shareholder-value mantra becomes the main focus, executives concentrate on avoiding taxes for the sake of higher profits, and they don’t think twice about permanently axing workers. They increase distributions of corporate cash to shareholders in the forms of dividends and, even more prominently, stock buybacks. When a corporation becomes financialized, the top executives no longer concern themselves with investing in the productive capabilities of employees, the foundation for rising living standards for all. They become focused instead on generating financial profits
So many hospital managers may have no qualms about punishing whistle-blowers to protect their organizations' revenues.

What Needs to Be Done?

In the short run, we must do all we can to protect health care professional whistleblowers, as suggested by the Whistleblower International Network above.

In the long run, hopefully assuming there is one, we further need to address the systemic features of our dysfunctional health care system that enabled the rise of leaders who are happy to silence health care professionals to preserve their organizations' reputations and revenue, no matter what.  We need leaders who put patient's and the public's health ahead of all else, and who understand and uphold health care professionals' values.  We need hospitals, hospital systems, and other organizations that provide direct patient care that are not responsible for producing profits for their owners or shareholders.

1 comment:

InformaticsMD said...

I recall my criticism of EHR flaws was not well-received when I still worked in hospitals back in the mid-late 1990s.

I'm glad I don't work in hospitals now.