The strain of the coronavirus pandemic should have the entire health-care system focused intently on quality and safety. Yet the dismissal of Bellingham doctor Ming Lin shows how misguided business practices can hold back medical providers in a time of crisis.
Lin practiced at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, where he was an emergency-room doctor, for 17 years. As the coronavirus crisis mounted, he took to social media to publicize conditions at the hospital he found appalling — a lack of separation of suspected COVID-19 cases from other patients and a dearth of testing for the virus. Lin’s employer removed him in response. The American Academy of Emergency Medicine and the Washington State Nurses Association condemned the firing.
Such a public airing of workplace grievance might anger most employers. But firing the messenger rather than acting on the message shows the company cared more about its public facade than accepting real evidence of issues that needed fixing.
The company, a national staffing firm called TeamHealth, is owned by a hedge fund. Washington has banned most corporate practice of medicine for decades, like many states, under a principle that commercial motivations are incompatible with the needs of patients.
“At bottom, the doctrine exists to protect the relationship between the professional and the client,” Washington state Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens wrote for a unanimous court in a 2010 ruling, upholding the law.
Yet TeamHealth, which boasts of employing more than 16,000 clinicians nationally and is the property of the immense private-equity company Blackstone Group, operates statewide in Washington. Attorney General Bob Ferguson should investigate whether this arrangement subverts state law. Too much is at stake in the ordeal of coronavirus to permit the profit motive to dictate how Washingtonians are treated. If this structure is indeed illegal, Ferguson should also investigate why the state failed at basic oversight in allowing it to exist and proliferate.
Regardless of an investigation’s outcome, the potential of significant consequences should be an impetus for TeamHealth to devote more resources to protect patients. Its treatment of Lin revealed poor stewardship, as did the conditions he brought to light. This corporation must be held accountable.
The pandemic makes every medical resource precious, none more so than conscientious doctors and nurses. The shortcomings Lin publicized ought to have roused an internal demand for improvement and a public apology from the company.
By firing him, TeamHealth showed an alarming willingness to risk demoralizing its stressed and self-sacrificing medical workforce, rather than listening to their needs for better practices and resources. That might make sense to a hedge fund, but it is a disservice to the medical profession and the Washingtonians whose reliance on it is nearing an all-time apex.