‘Please tell me you’re Republicans,’ President Ronald Reagan joked with his doctors as he headed into surgery after an assassination attempt against him in 1981. The joke worked in part because it was obviously absurd to think any doctor would alter their standard of care based on the politics of their patient. In 2020, can anyone be so sure?
In the age of COVID, medical opinion has often become indistinguishable from politics. Laypeople cherrypick statements and studies that seem to confirm their biases, and when all else fails, glob on to anecdotal evidence from a friend, family member, or celebrity who got the virus. Sadly, too many doctors are no better. Epidemiologists write snarky letters admonishing White House task force member Dr Scott Atlas for his lack of a medical background in immunology and accuse him of spreading misinformation, but have shockingly little to say about Dr Rachel Levine, the Pennsylvania health secretary who has a background in pediatrics and made the objectively horrible decision to force COVID patients back into nursing homes.
When a COVID-positive Donald Trump left Walter Reed Hospital on Sunday to wave to supporters from an SUV, pundits proclaimed that he was willing to literally kill the Secret Service agents who were in the car with him. Never mind that it is the agents’ job to constantly be in close proximity to the President, even when he is sick, that they reportedly wore full PPE including N95 masks, gowns and goggles, or that the survival rate of the virus for healthy, non-elderly individuals is something like 99.8 percent. Proponents of this type of fear mongering quickly found their champion in Dr James Phillips, the chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital and an attending physician at Walter Reed.
‘Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary presidential “drive-by” just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity,’ Phillips tweeted.
In case you were under the impression that Phillips is an unbiased medical professional, he later sneered that the President’s Twitter output would be the true indicator of his health and warned that staff may even try to imitate him to give the false impression that he is doing well.
‘In these most-unusual times, Twitter is the fifth vital sign, and perhaps the most important in this particular case. Right now, it is at and unprecedented and critically low level,’ he later added.
Not nearly as much fanfare was given to Dr William Lang, a former White House physician who worked in the Clinton and Bush administrations, who said the risk of the so-called ‘drive-by’ was ‘very very small’. Nor to the President’s medical team at Walter Reed, who cleared the trip with ‘appropriate precautions’. Certainly they would know better than Dr Phillips, who has had no contact with the President, unless you’re one of the conspiracy theorists who believes Trump’s medical team is covering up his condition or even lying about him having COVID in the first place.
This issue, unfortunately, cuts both ways. Across the aisle from ‘resistance doctor’ Twitter is ‘MAGA doctor’ Twitter, where experts insist that Trump belongs in the age 20-49 risk category because of his ‘strength and stamina’. It is wonderful that the President has so far experienced relatively mild symptoms related to the virus, but it is patently absurd to speculate that an aggressively overweight 74-year old does not have higher risk than a healthy young person.
If we continue at this rate, doctors will need an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ beside their name before ‘MD’. Who are Americans supposed to rely on for medical information when so many public-facing health professionals devolve into partisan hacks? If the medical field does not immediately put a stop to this politicization, the profession will see the same decline in trust as the media. Its reputation will likely never recover.