Hospitals are threatening to fire health care workers who publicize their working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic -- and have in some cases followed through.
Ming Lin, an emergency room physician in Washington state, said he was told Friday he was out of a job because he'd given an interview to a newspaper about a Facebook post detailing what he believed to be inadequate protective equipment and testing. In Chicago, a nurse was fired after emailing colleagues that she wanted to wear a more protective mask while on duty. In New York, the NYU Langone Health system has warned employees they could be terminated if they talk to the media without authorization.
"Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other health care workers in an attempt to preserve their image," said Ruth Schubert, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Nurses Association. "It is outrageous."
Hospitals have traditionally had strict media guidelines to protect patient privacy, urging staff to talk with journalists only through official public relations offices. But the pandemic has ushered in a new era, Schubert said.
Health care workers "must have the ability to tell the public what is really going on inside the facilities where they are caring for COVID-19 patients," she said.
One reason is to prepare other nurses and doctors for the looming onslaught of cases and encourage donations of much-needed equipment, particularly the personal protective equipment or PPE that protects them from being infected and in turn infecting other patients as well as their families when they go home.
In China, one of the earliest alarms about the mysterious new illness was raised by a doctor in an online chatroom in late December. He was reprimanded and forced to sign a police statement that the post was illegal. He later contracted the disease from a patient and died.
"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, faculty director of Harvard Law School's bioethics center. It's likely hospitals are trying to limit reputational damage because "when health care workers say they are not being protected, the public gets very upset at the hospital system."
Doctors are a famously independent profession, where individual medical judgment on what's best for the patient is prized over administrative dictates. That's reared its head during the COVID-19 outbreak, with many physicians, nurses and other health care workers taking to social media to express deep concerns about the lack of protective gear or much-needed patient-care equipment like respirators. Some posts have gone viral and are being shared hundreds of thousands of times, often tagged with #GetMePPE. Privacy laws prohibit disclosing specific patient information, but they don't bar discussing general working conditions.
NYU Langone Health employees received a notice Friday from Kathy Lewis, executive vice president of communications, saying that anyone who talked to the media without authorization would be "subject to disciplinary action, including termination."