Hospital staff have been frantically trying to get the word out: They are slammed with COVID-19 patients and they don’t have enough personal protective equipment to handle all the patients safely. But in some cases the effort to let the public know the severity of the situation is running up against hospital administrators who want to muzzle front-line healthcare workers, Bloomberg reports.
An emergency room doctor in Washington state was fired after doing a newspaper interview about inadequate protective gear and testing. NYU Langone Health has told workers that talking to the media without permission could cost them their jobs. And in Chicago, a nurse was fired for emailing her colleagues—not even the media—about wanting better protective gear.
“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,’” a North Carolina doctor who runs two Facebook groups for physicians told Bloomberg.
”Our oath is to do no harm,” said Min Lin, the Washington doctor who was fired. “I spoke out for patient safety and as a result I got terminated.”
Patient safety matters, and so does health care worker safety. Doctors and nurses are being diagnosed with COVID-19 at a frightening rate.
“It is good and appropriate for health-care workers to be able to express their own fears and concerns, especially when expressing that might get them better protection,” said Glenn Cohen, a Harvard Law School professor and director of Harvard’s bioethics center. So why are hospitals trying to shut them up? Because “when health-care workers say they are not being protected, the public gets very upset at the hospital system.”
A spokesperson for the Washington State Nurses Association agreed, saying, “Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other health-care workers in an attempt to preserve their image.”
Hospitals traditionally have rules restricting employees from talking to the media to protect patient privacy, but that’s not what’s at issue here. This is about the working conditions faced by everyone in hospitals—doctors, nurses, physician assistants, certified nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, and everyone else. If they’re being put in danger, they should have the right to blow the whistle.
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