When an anti-vaccination organization convinces a physician to join their ranks

It’s always a coup when an anti-vaccination organization can convince a physician to join their ranks. They act like it provides a thin veneer of legitimacy to their pseudoscientific cause. This was recently the case with an anti-vaccination organization in Ohio (my home state.) They recruited the former medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. You may remember his infamous article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January 2017. In it, he goes on about a “toxic soup” we live in and how vaccines largely contribute to it. At one point, he mentions autism but says, “I won’t debate that here.” He then goes on to do just that. For a few hours, his letter had the Cleveland Clinic’s logo on it (long since removed). But the body of the letter remains. It’s an online pilgrimage site for anti-vaxxers everywhere.

This physician no longer has a leadership position at the Cleveland Clinic or any that I can tell. He went quiet after issuing a statement in support of vaccination when his article drew widespread condemnation. Aside from his little-known attendance of an Ohio anti-vaccination pseudoscience fair in May, he stayed out the headlines the rest of his 2017.

Then, in January 2018, he broke his silence. He popped up as a keynote speaker for the anti-vaccination group for a rally at Ohio’s statehouse, eschewing his desire for “dialogue” in favor of a full embrace of their anti-vaccination position. I’ll spend the next few paragraphs discussing his speech. You’re welcome to view it for yourself (and get a feel for the group above’s technical skills; I attribute any misquotes below to the video quality or lack thereof).

This physician covers a lot of ground in his 15 minutes. He starts by referring to his time at the Cleveland Clinic and says, “Like most medical providers, I was bought and sold by pharma,” after bemoaning being trained to “identify a disease state and treat it with
medication.”

I guess that didn’t bother him too much though; he worked there for 20 years. He discusses the fallout from his controversial article. “As soon as I hit a nerve that impacted my healthcare organization financially, all hell broke loose … One week after the article came out, I was relieved of my administrative duties. I was allowed to continue to practice clinically, but essentially, my career at the Cleveland Clinic was over.”

Next, he launches into an eight-point anti-vaccine rant that, to observers of this Ohio anti-vaccination organization’s social media, could have been ripped from their Facebook comment section. It isn’t anything other anti-vaccination groups aren’t hawking. One point this physician seems particularly passionate about is informed consent surrounding vaccines. Despite this passion, he isn’t terribly versed in it, of his own admission. He describes his typical practice to provide vaccine information sheets (VIS) to patients/parents after vaccines are administered. He is quick to infer that this is common in medicine. However, this isn’t common in medicine. Providing a VIS to patients/parents prior to vaccination is the standard of care. Any resident in a primary care specialty can tell you that. His failure to obtain informed consent is not a reflection of primary care as a whole.

He continues discussing informed consent, going so far as to liken patients to victims of the Holocaust. Dr. David Gorski does an excellent job debunking this worn-out anti-vax trope in his own article about this physician’s speech.

This doctor then bemoans employer flu-shot requirements. “It’s an incredibly slippery slope!” He wonders aloud if work will mandate Pap smears and digital rectal examinations for employees. Somebody should remind him that interventions that prevent disease outbreaks in the workplace aren’t quite the same as those that are meant to screen for cancer.

He reminds his listeners that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath. Rattling off the Latin like a pro, he says the oath starts with “‘primum non nocere,’ ‘first do no harm.’” However, those of us who took the oath might remember that those words aren’t explicitly part of the oath. This isn’t to say they aren’t a pillar of medical ethics; they are. It’s just another example of this physician failing to get his facts straight.

His speech climaxes with “we must push to uncover truths in our vaccines … the real safety and efficacy data. Not the ones big pharma or the government wants us to see.” Houston, we have lift off — unless he also thinks the moon landing was fake too. Welcome to the club. The tin foil hats are by the refreshments.

He ends with a “please don’t feel sorry for me.” Don’t worry — we don’t. He’s starting his own private practice. It sounds like it’s going to be cash only; I don’t expect insurance to cover the “medical treatments” described on their website.

New patient visits are $400, and there’s no on-call service. Despite a self-professed mission to care for his patients, this doctor’s practice seems to be modeled to care for his lifestyle.

His partner, trained in obstetrics and gynecology, purports to have found a cure for autism. That information can be yours for a nominal fee! Forget sharing it with the world when, instead, you can get rich preying on unwitting patients and families.

Their website includes a link to a “supplement store.” What an entrepreneurial way to increase the business’ cash flow! Having accused the Cleveland Clinic of protecting its bottom line, this physician appears to be padding his.

No longer “bought and sold by pharma,” he’s sold himself to pseudoscience and alternative medicine. This doctor would have us see him as a martyr. Instead, he’s just a guy trying to make a buck, to the possible detriment of the health of his community. Instead of “primum non nocere,” he’s embraced “cash est rex.”

It would seem that this doctor seeks to aid an organization whose goal is to put the life and health of Ohio children, my patients included, at risk. It’s up to those of us who practice evidence-based medicine to advocate for our patients and protect them from such providers and the anti-vaccination groups they stump for.

Sean Gallagher is a pediatric resident.  He can be reached on Twitter @TheKidKidDoc​.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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