Will you be receiving the COVID-19 vaccine? According to the AMA, you havean ethical duty to do so—or to at least protect your patients from any harm you might inadvertently cause.
The AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics already notes that physicians have a strong ethical duty to accept immunizations when a safe, effective vaccine is available, especially when a highly transmissible disease poses significant risks to patients and colleagues (but not when a specific vaccine poses a risk due to underlying medical conditions). Ethical concerns arose when physicians were allowed to decline vaccinations for non-medical reasons.
At the Nov. 16, 2020, Special Meeting of the AMA House of Delegates, language was added to the ethical guidance that “physicians who are not or cannot be immunized have a responsibility to voluntarily take appropriate actions to protect patients, fellow healthcare workers and others.” This includes refraining from direct patient contact.
“Physicians and other healthcare workers who decline to be immunized with a safe and effective vaccine without a compelling medical reason can pose an unnecessary medical risk to vulnerable patients or colleagues,” said AMA board member Michael Suk, MD, JD, MPH, MBA, in a release. “Physicians must strike an ethical balance between their personal commitments as moral individuals and their obligations as medical professionals.”
Attacked for Being Pro-Vaccine
At first blush, the experience of Pittsburgh-based Kids Plus Pediatrics mightseem like a cautionary tale. In 2017, the practice posted a video promoting the HPV vaccine, along with physician comments such as, “It can prevent thousands of deaths each year.”
Soon, however, the practice’s social media sites began receiving negative reviews and comments from around the world—more than 800 people and 10,000 comments.
Rather than take down the video, though, Kids Plus Pediatrics stepped up its pro-vaccination message, and its CEO, Todd Wolynn, MD, MMM, helped start Shots Heard Round The World, a nonprofit group that protects the social media pages of practices promoting the public health benefits of vaccinations. The group monitors anti-vaccination activity and has crafted a toolkit for practices that have come under attack for promoting vaccines.
Dr. Wolynn has made it his life’s work to set an example of how to be an outspoken vaccination advocate in the face of coordinated opposition. He’s a fixture on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook. His message for otolaryngologists is simple: Despite some opposition, if you aren’t promoting your messages on social media, you aren’t helping your patients as much as you could.
“In 2020, it’s actually ludicrous to think that doctors are going to impart all your wisdom inside the four walls of your clinic or your office, and that includes otolaryngologists,” he said. “Your patients are getting all their information from social media, like it or not. For us to not be there is literally to abandon our patients to harmful disinformation.”
Discussions can be tailored for individual patients, but vaccines should have a place in the discussion, said Dr. Wolynn. “If it’s a geriatric patient, for example, I don’t think you have to go into a deep dive on the HPV vaccine,” he said. “But you certainly might say, ‘Influenza kills 40,000 to 80,000 people a year, mostly in your age group.’”
Most people are in favor of vaccinations, said Dr. Wolynn, and those who are hesitant aren’t usually hardline anti-vaccination advocates, who are the most vocal. This makes it important to present a more coordinated, pro-vaccine message, he said. “Vaccines are a public health issue that every healthcare provider can get behind.”