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Tuesday, August 1, 2023

When Did Medicine Become a Battleground for Everything?

Tara Haelle
Originally posted 18 July 23

Like hundreds of other medical experts, Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner, was an early and avid supporter of COVID vaccines and their ability to prevent severe disease, hospitalization, and death from SARS-CoV-2 infections.

When 51-year-old Scott Eli Harris, of Aubrey, Texas, heard of Wen's stance in July 2021, the self-described "5th generation US Army veteran and a sniper" sent Wen an electronic invective laden with racist language and very specific threats to shoot her.

Harris pled guilty to transmitting threats via interstate commerce last February and began serving 6 months in federal prison last fall, but his threats wouldn't be the last for Wen. Just 2 days after Harris was sentenced, charges were unsealed against another man in Massachusetts, who threatened that Wen would "end up in pieces" if she continued "pushing" her thoughts publicly.'

Wen has plenty of company. In an August 2022 survey of emergency doctors conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians, 85% of respondents said violence against them is increasing. One in four doctors said they're being assaulted by patients and their family and friends multiple times a week, compared to just 8% of doctors who said as much in 2018. Sixty-four percent of emergency physicians reported receiving verbal assaults and threats of violence; 40% reported being hit or slapped, and 26% were kicked.

This uptick of violence and threats against physicians didn't come out of nowhere; violence against healthcare workers has been gradually increasing over the past decade. Healthcare providers can attest to the hostility that particular topics have sparked for years: vaccines in pediatrics, abortion in ob-gyn, and gender-affirming care in endocrinology.

But the pandemic fueled the fire. While there have always been hot-button issues in medicine, the ire they arouse today is more intense than ever before. The proliferation of misinformation (often via social media) and the politicization of public health and medicine are at the center of the problem.

"The People Attacking Are Themselves Victims'

The misinformation problem first came to a head in one area of public health: vaccines. The pandemic accelerated antagonism in medicine ― thanks, in part, to decades of anti- antivaccine activism.

The anti-vaccine movement, which has ebbed and flowed in the US and across the globe since the first vaccine, experienced a new wave in the early 2000s with the combination of concerns about thimerosal in vaccines and a now disproven link between autism and the MMR vaccine. But that movement grew. It picked up steam when activists gained political clout after a 2014 measles outbreak at Disneyland led California schools to tighten up policies regarding vaccinations for kids who enrolled. These stronger public school vaccination laws ran up against religious freedom arguments from anti-vaccine advocates.