Dr. Bruce Holmblad, Riverside County Medical Association
Now more than ever, Californians are relying on physicians to help guide them through these difficult times. While the outbreak of COVID-19 has created tremendous uncertainty throughout our communities, we have seen countless physicians put their own health and safety at risk to treat people facing a new, deadly disease.
But that sacred trust between physician and community was violated recently by two misguided physicians who opted to recklessly spread inaccurate and untested information about COVID-19. These two created a public outcry that only fed the viral spread of bad information as they selfishly put their own interests above the public good.
In this internet age, we are all used to bad information and unfounded conspiracy theories.
What makes the actions of these two physicians so damaging is that they used the inherent trust people have in their physicians to disseminate their bad information. As CalMatters reporter Barbara Osterov said, “They dressed in scrubs. They sounded scientific. And last week’s message from two Bakersfield doctors was exactly what many stuck-at-home Americans wanted to hear.”
Unfortunately, their message was 100% inaccurate. Not only was it dangerous, it earned sharp and immediate rebuke from their peers. These two do not speak for doctors and should not be mistaken for credible sources.
Public health experts quickly debunked the doctors’ findings as misguided and riddled with statistical errors. The American College of Emergency Physicians scolded the pair for cynically attempting “to advance their own financial interests without regard for the public’s health.”
Physicians are human, too. We all understand the tremendous stress and discomfort that stay at home orders have created for people across the state, the country and the world. We want to get back to normal. We know that people are hurting economically. Many physician offices have also had to close their doors and furlough or lay off employees over the last several weeks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of mental anguish and economic uncertainty that should not be downplayed or underestimated and that carries its own health risks.
But there is a right way to go about reopening our society. It must be done in a way that is anchored in scientific fact and expertise. Over the last several days, Gov. Gavin Newsom has started to chart out a course for California to get back to work, and back to something like our normal lives. Meanwhile, the California Medical Association has established some guidelines and best practices for physicians to start reopening their offices and ensure that Californians can get the health care they need.
As COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with our communities, many people have opted to stay out of the doctor’s office. The number of reported stroke and heart attack cases in hospitals around the country is down as much as 30%. That’s not because people are having fewer strokes or heart attacks. It’s because people are trying to do the right thing by staying home, and many may be afraid of putting themselves in harm’s way by going to see a doctor.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned way of thinking may lead to much more complex problems in the future, as patients miss routine screenings and preventative care.
With proper safety precautions, a doctor’s office is one of the safest places for a patient to be. Reopening them is an important step for California to take as a state.
It’s not just emergency services. It’s also things like well-child visits, to ensure that children are getting proper immunizations. There is also evidence that the shutdown of pediatric practices has caused a drop in child abuse reporting. Cases of abuse are often caught during well child visits, which are not routinely happening. By staying out of the doctor’s office, these children are being left at risk.
Physicians and patients are taking precautions to minimize risk and ensure the doctor’s office is a safe place to go. While many of us have ramped up efforts to service patients with telehealth visits, certain things just can’t be done over the phone or in a Zoom meeting.
All practices and facilities must adopt comprehensive safety protocols including universal masking for patients, physical distancing and removing toys and magazines from waiting rooms. The reopening of our health care system may also be regional. The reopening of California’s health care system will not happen all at once and will not be a one size fits all approach. The size and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic in California calls for a regional, phased approach that recognizes local circumstances in the various parts of this diverse state.
The road back from the COVID-19 pandemic will not be easy. As many have said, it will not simply be a light switch that is turned on all at once that allows us all to instantly return to the way things were just a couple of months ago. It will be a winding road of ups and downs, with some trial and error. But if we do it responsibly, we can ensure we are protecting each other the best we can, in a responsible way, as we all work together to rebuild our lives and our communities.
Dr. Bruce Holmblad is the president of the Riverside County Medical Association.