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ER doctor says he was fired for calling out unsafe COVID-19 conditions

caption: Dr. Ming Lin
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Dr. Ming Lin
Courtesy of The Associated Press

For the last 17 years, Dr. Ming Lin has worked in the emergency room at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham.

Dr. Lin says he was fired from his job last week, after publicly calling on the hospital to better protect patients and staff from COVID-19. The letters he wrote to hospital administrators were shared on Facebook by hundreds of people.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dr. Lin's employer is a national firm called TeamHealth, which staffs emergency departments all over the country. Here's what he said about his situation and the atmosphere of his former emergency room:

I feel COVID is a very difficult disease to fight, because it's like you're blind fighting it. This is a biohazard level three organism, which basically means you can catch it aerosolized if you're not properly covered.

I see nurses who were still wearing their own clothes, and still wearing their personal equipment. The hospital should be providing scrubs for us. They should be able to provide us a decontamination zone, so we can take our clothes off, and put on the scrubs.

Then when we get off work, put the scrubs in the laundry where they can wash it at a high temperature to get rid of any virus, so we're not bringing it back home to our family or community.

What specifically were you asking hospital management to do that they weren't doing?

One of them was to check temperatures among all staff members and all patients coming to the emergency room, similar to what they're doing in many other hospitals. That would prevent any risk of infection coming into the hospital. We can identify them before they come in. We can also make sure that staff members are not contaminating or infecting each other.

The other thing I recommended was that we do some kind of outside triaging or telemedicine triaging. This is primarily to not expose the waiting room or receptionists to potential COVID patients.

The third thing was the lab scenario. I had recommended, because our lab was so delayed compared to other hospitals, that we consider choosing another lab to send our COVID tests, so that we can get quicker results. Because the longer the patient stays in the hospital, if you're COVID-positive, the more likely a staff member is going to get exposed.

After you posted these letters publicly on your Facebook page, how did your employer respond?

PeaceHealth got ahold of it and they sent an email to my director. Then my director kind of hinted to me, "look, they don't like this, you need to think about doing something with it."

Were you terminated?

Not at that point, surprisingly.

When did that part happen?

More than 10 days afterward. I had returned back from Rosebud, South Dakota, after doing some work at the Indian reservation. Then I worked a shift or two, I think two shifts, in the emergency room. Then I was scheduled to go to work.

Then I got a text from the Vice President of TeamHealth who informed me that my shift has been covered. I texted my boss and he confirmed by text that yes, I had been terminated.

TeamHealth, this national firm that provides staffing in your former department, says you were not fired. What do you make of that?

I feel that I was terminated. I think it's obvious that it’s termination. It's obvious that medicine has become a corporation where the main goal is PR. You want to make yourself look good in the public's eye. It's image control. That’s what they're trying to do.

This has happened numerous times to other physicians and other health care workers. This is not a new thing. The only thing different about this is that this happens to be during the pandemic, that happens to an emergency room physician who is greatly needed at the time.

Your former co-workers in the emergency department at PeaceHealth are still going to work and possibly treating COVID patients. How do you grapple with not being there right now? It must be tough right now.

I miss my colleagues. I miss my staff. All I can say is, I feel like I lit a match. But, somebody up there just poured gasoline on this. I feel like I struck a nerve, because this is the perfect storm for this kind of thing.

We as providers take an oath to do no harm. We make a pledge to point out any deficiency that can cause any harm. I feel like the privatization of health care has made it difficult for us to do that.

If we try to speak out, we will be either reprimanded or lose our job. A lot of us choose to speak anonymously. This has happened over and over again.

As I explore this, through my last two weeks, I’ve realized, I get lots of texts, and there's lots of news about this -- doctors and nurses saying, "this is unsafe," then they are subsequently terminated.

My situation is not new. It's something that is it's been ongoing for a long time. Hospitals and health care systems are a lot of times owned by private equity groups. Their main goal is profit, but also image.

Dr. Lin, a lot of people may be thinking that you've put your job on the line to speak out about safety for health care workers and for patients. Do you have any regrets?

First of all, I think is more than my job. When a health care provider, especially a doctor, is fired, you're kind of like a black sheep. You're restricted from working certain places because people see that you're fired. It's more than just a job, it's a career.

Most doctors usually opt to resign. I was given that option, to basically recant, repent, and consider resigning. I knew that even if I recant and repent and apologize, I was going to be a marked man. At that point, I've crossed the Rubicon, it's time for me to commit to what I believe, what is morally right.

In a statement sent to KUOW today (Monday, March 30), Dr. Lin's employer TeamHealth said he has not been terminated, and that the company is committed to finding the right location for him.

Officials with PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham did not comment directly on Dr. Lin's employment, but sent along a statement saying the hospital is taking every precaution necessary to ensure the health and well-being of patients and caregivers.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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