BELLINGHAM – Escalating a global spat over workplace safety and the rights of health-care workers during the coronavirus crisis, a top official of PeaceHealth has now confirmed the company ousted emergency physician Ming Lin for allegedly inciting public fear by criticizing the hospital’s emergency precautions.
In a lengthy interview on a YouTube video blog popular with medical professionals, Richard DeCarlo, chief operating officer of PeaceHealth, which operates Bellingham’s St. Joseph Medical Center, likened Lin’s public warnings about workplace coronavirus concerns to “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” He said the hospital had no choice but to remove Lin from his post of 17 years.
In an online interview on “ZDoggMD,” hosted by Dr. Zubin Damania, DeCarlo went so far as to suggest that Lin’s prior warnings about hospital safety constituted a public-health threat by potentially scaring people away from the Bellingham emergency department.
“When somebody may be having stroke symptoms, maybe having chest pain, and they think, ‘Boy, I’ve heard from that doctor saying that it’s not safe to go there, I’m going to drive an hour away (to the next closest hospital).’ That’s the level that it reached,” DeCarlo said. “That’s the reason why we had to take action.”
In a statement to The Seattle Times on Monday, DeCarlo clarified the hospital has no information about patients actually neglecting treatment because of Lin’s posts, saying his statement was derived from reviewing public comments on Lin’s Facebook page.
Lin said Monday that he had seen the video and urged members of the public to view his Facebook posts and draw their own conclusions. Lin on March 16 accused PeaceHealth management of mishandling early COVID-19 testing; failing to conduct proper triage of patients and staff entering the hospital; and lagging in procedures for protective equipment and other emergency measures.
“I suggest people go over my statements and judge for themselves whether I was ‘yelling fire,’” he said. “My main message has always been patient and staff safety, and drawing attention to that.”
Previously, officials at PeaceHealth, a Vancouver, Washington-based, not-for-profit medical firm with facilities in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, had refused to comment on the March 27 firing of Lin, 57, a veteran physician who previously served in the emergency room closest to the 9/11 terror attacks. They repeatedly assigned responsibility for his dismissal to TeamHealth, a Tennessee-based, private equity firm-owned national medical staffing firm.
But DeCarlo’s online appearance removed any lingering doubt that PeaceHealth, which runs the only hospital in Whatcom County, directly ordered Lin’s removal for what PeaceHealth officials contend was spreading false information about hospital preparations.
“It wasn’t true, what he was posting,” said DeCarlo, who noted that he read every one of the hundreds of public comments posted on Lin’s Facebook messages.
Ultimately, “We did ask for him to be removed, because we didn’t feel like he could adequately perform his services, and that he was in a state where he had created a toxic environment, really, between the ER staff and himself,” DeCarlo said.
“It’s the voice of one physician,” DeCarlo said. “To have this kind of distraction in a national disaster is really troubling.”
Asked by host Damania what Lin had said that wasn’t true, DeCarlo referenced Lin’s complaints about the lack of triage tents outside the hospital, which Lin said were necessary to screen incoming patients and staff for the virus.
The tents, DeCarlo said, were always available, but he acknowledged they still were not in use because traffic at the hospital has been low.
In his Monday statement, DeCarlo alleged that Lin had also posted inaccurate information about testing availability; segregation of patients inside the hospital; and protective gear; and had engaged in “generally speculative content” about transmission of the virus between a patient and a staff member.
Some of the safety measures Lin called for, including temperature checks of all staff members reporting for duty, have been initiated in the hospital in the wake of Lin’s public protestations. PeaceHealth officials maintain these were planned all along.
Lin’s earlier public comments about what he called insufficient safety measures were echoed by multiple emergency department and other hospital employees in communications reviewed by The Seattle Times. They were repeated by additional employees, all asking not to be named for fear of retribution by PeaceHealth, after Lin went public in a March 20 news report.
After his firing, Lin’s public tone shifted to an appeal for the public to support hospital employees by securing additional local testing and badly needed protective equipment for health-care workers.
Meanwhile, some PeaceHealth managers have continued to keep the conflict in the spotlight.
In an email to employees obtained by The Seattle Times, PeaceHealth director of communications and marketing Bev Mayhew said, “Dr. Lin’s posts tapped into societal fear about the COVID-19 pandemic and captured local and national attention.”
Attaching a link to the interview, she added, “This 48-minute interview shares PeaceHealth’s side of the story. It’s worth a watch … and a share, if you are so inclined.”
In the video, DeCarlo, who said he personally had worked for nearly 35 days straight during the coronavirus crisis, maintained PeaceHealth had not responded fully to Lin’s contentions earlier because it was too busy dealing with the emergency to worry about public relations.
He struck a different tone in a Sunday email to all PeaceHealth St. Joseph medical staff, also obtained by The Times, in which he said his office had “worked to secure an interview on the ZDoggMD show” for the past week with what he called a “highly influential social blogger with 1.6 million followers.”
Lin became an international symbol of employee resistance when the story of his firing spread globally, boosted by tweets from high-traffic influencers such as Jake Tapper and Edward Snowden. His firing drew immediate condemnations by a range of advocacy groups such as the Washington State Nurses Association and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.
The 19,000-member nurse’s group used Lin’s firing to help launch an online #SilenceKills campaign, urging members to speak out about any unsafe workplace conditions. The AAEM urged the Washington state Attorney General to investigate not only the firing, but the practice of PeaceHealth and other providers outsourcing emergency physician employment, which the group suggested might violate state law.