Hospitals Muzzle Doctors and Nurses on PPE, COVID-19 Cases

Alicia Gallegos

March 25, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

Over the past month, an orthopedic surgeon has watched as the crowd of sick patients at his hospital has grown, while the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff has diminished. As he prepares for another day of staffing testing tents and places his one and only mask across his face, he also receives a daily reminder from hospital management: Don’t talk about it.

The surgeon, who works in a COVID-19 hot spot in the Northeast, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of employer retribution.

"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."

The warnings mean staff at the hospital suffer in silence, unable to share the troubling situation with the public or request assistance with supplies.

"I have one mask. We’re expected to reuse them, unless you were exposed or worked with a known COVID victim," the surgeon said. "However, with the numbers in our region rapidly increasing, you can’t assume that people don’t have it or that you don’t have particles on your mask, even if you’re not in a known quarantine zone within the institution."

As the COVID-19 health crisis rages on, online platforms have become a common place for health professionals to lament short supplies, share concerns, tell stories, and plead for help. But at the same time, other physicians, nurses, and health care workers are being muzzled by hospital administrators and threatened with discipline for speaking out about coronavirus caseloads and dwindling supplies. Some worry the gag orders are muddying the picture of how hospitals are faring in the pandemic, while placing the safety of frontline workers at risk.

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."

Meanwhile, 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. The hospitalist posted on a social media platform to request donations of N95 masks after hearing members of the public had purchased such masks. He hoped his plea would aid preparation for the pandemic at local hospitals, explained the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Shortly afterward, administrators from his hospital contacted the online forum’s moderator and the posts were removed, he said. During a subsequent conversation, administrators warned the doctor not to make such posts about PPE because it made the hospital appear incompetent.

"I was told, 'We can handle this, we don’t need the public's help,' " the physician said. "I was hurt and upset. I was trying to help protect my peers."

After landing on the management’s radar, the hospitalist said he was reprimanded a second time about posts on a separate personal social media account. The second time, the private posts to friends and family were related to COVID-19 and PPE, but did not include any protected health information, he said. However, administrators did not like the content of the posts, and he was told management was monitoring his activity on social media, he said.

"The larger message is that patients are money," the hospitalist said. "The corporate side of medicine rules out over the medicine side. Image and making sure there is a consistent cash flow trumps all else."

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, said the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"[The health system] is very protective of their public image," he said. "In the past, people that have posted things that they don’t like get spoken to quickly and/or fired depending on what was written. I could only imagine that would be the situation regarding COVID-19. They are very strict."

The frontline physician, who has close contact with COVID-19 patients, said he has access to N95 masks at the moment, but when he requested higher-level protective gear, hospital management refused the request and denied that such supplies were needed.

"Safety of frontline workers appears to not be taken seriously," he said of his hospital. "Everyone is stressed, but at the end of the day, the administration is sitting there, while the rest of us are putting ourselves at risk."

We reached out to one hospital for comment, but messages were not returned. Other hospitals were not contacted because physicians feared they would face retribution. We also contacted the American Hospital Association but they did not immediately respond.

In Chicago, an email by a nurse to her coworkers about the safety of masks has resulted in a lawsuit after the nurse says she was fired for sharing her concerns with staff. The 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.

Ms. Mazurkiewicz could not be reached for comment by press time.

Christopher King, a spokesman for Northwestern Medicine, said the hospital is reviewing the lawsuit.

"As Northwestern Medicine continues to respond to this unprecedented health care pandemic, the health and well-being of our patients, our staff and our employees is our highest priority," he said in a statement. "We take these matters seriously and we are currently reviewing the complaint. At this time, we will not be commenting further."

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 experiences.

"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."

Dr. Mandrola, who is a regular Medscape contributor, said that a number of doctors have reached out to him privately about PPE scarcity and shared that they were explicitly warned by administrators not to talk about the shortfalls. Leadership at Dr. Mandrola’s hospital has not issued the same warnings, he said.

"From the hat of total transparency, I think the public is not getting a full view of the impending potential problems that are going to come by doctors not speaking publicly," he said. "On the other hand, hospital leadership is doing the best they can. It’s not the hospitals’ fault. Hospital administrators can’t manufacture masks."

From a public health standpoint, Dr. Mehta said that not allowing health professionals to speak publicly about the situations at their hospitals is "irresponsible." The public deserves to know what is happening, she said, and the health care workforce needs to prepare for what is to come.

"It’s so important that we hear from our colleagues," she said. "It’s important to hear those accounts so we can prepare for what we’re about to face. Data is crucial. The more you learn from each other, the better shot we have at successfully treating cases and ultimately beating this."

With the critical shortage of PPE at his hospital and the inability to speak out about the problem, the orthopedic surgeon foresees the dilemma continuing to worsen.

"It’s not only the lives of front-line health care workers that are at risk, but it’s those that they’re going to spread it to and those that are going to be coming to the hospital requiring our care," he said. "If we don’t have a fully functioning health care force, our capacity is going to be diminished that much further."

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