Ebola Government Malfeasance

When I see patients with serious eye diseases, they want confidence that I will do my best in treating them, relying on my training, experience, and judgment. They expect my best efforts regardless of their race, gender, political views, or insurance plan. Patients cannot understand their disease and treatment options at the level I do, so it comes down to trust. Trust that I as a physician will be honest and tell my patient what they need to know.

Within the current Ebola outbreak, rapidly becoming a public health nightmare, the government and its agencies replaces the physician, and the American public replaces the individual patient. So the question is, can the public trust the government in communicating honestly and acting in the best interests of the people it represents?

For a physician, communicating honestly with patients is a must. Sure there can be differences of opinion in terms of which drug or surgical approach would be best for a particular patient. But the differences are subtle, not for example whether a gun shot wound to the chest should be treated surgically or with a band aid and Tylenol.

So how much confidence does the American public have when President Obama tells West Africans about Ebola transmission, "You cannot get it through casual contact like sitting next to someone on a bus." How about sitting on a plane? If it’s so hard to catch, why did a man on a recent US Airways flight, joking about having Ebola, get escorted off the plane by officials in hazmat suits? Such precautions are not used for typical disruptive airplane passengers.

Instead the CDC tells us we can be exposed to Ebola if we, “Spend a long amount of time within three feet (one meter) of a person who is sick with Ebola.” What’s “a long amount of time”? A bus ride from the North side of Chicago to Hyde Park? A subway ride from Upper Manhattan to Coney Island? Who is right and who is pulling our leg with confident assertions of how “you cannot get it”?

If you went to a doctor and was told that your lump “could be cancer” and a second opinion was that “it cannot be cancer,” would you be confused? I would. Certainly not confidence-inspiring that two professionals can disagree so profoundly. One of those opinions is wrong and your life may hang in the balance until you sort through the haze. Similar disparate Ebola opinions understandably “shook confidence in the US’s ability to contain the virus.” How safe are we from Ebola? Many lives hang on that answer.

What if a physician blamed a patient for her health situation, specifically pointing out to a patient that she is obese? A physician in New Hampshire did just that, only to have the state attorney general launch an investigation. Yet CDC Director Thomas Frieden Sunday blamed the latest Ebola victim for contracting the deadly infection, only to backtrack the following day.

Dr. Frieden, who on Sunday blamed the nurse’s infection on a “breach of protocol,” said Monday he had not meant to imply that it was the nurse’s or hospital’s fault. “All of us have to work together to do whatever is possible to reduce the risk that any other health-care worker becomes infected,” he said.

Will Eric Holder be investigating?

What kind of physician blames their patient for not responding to treatment recommended by the physician? Aren’t physicians supposed to be compassionate and empathetic? Yet Dr. Frieden does just that, blaming the Dallas nurse for “breaching protocol” although he doesn’t know what the breach was and that the protocol was from his own CDC. If I do what my physician tell me to do and I don’t get better, and the physician blames me, then it’s time to find a new doc.

Physicians who fail to diagnose or mismanage their patients are often sued or reprimanded by the regulatory agencies. What happens when government officials misstate, either through ignorance or for political advantage, the true public health risks of Ebola? And then turn around and blame the victim for their infection despite following existing government protocols? Remedies exist for wayward physicians. For the government, the only remedy is Election Day in three weeks.

Dr. Joondeph is a retina surgeon at Colorado Retina Associates and serves on the faculty of Rocky Vista University School of Medicine. Twitter @retinaldoctor.

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