Monday, July 3, 2017

Sharp Hospital's Partisan Doctor Gets Political, Then Calls Me A Bully

Sharp Grossmont Hospital's Dr. James Veltmeyer
A prominent San Diego physician who issued a press release last month trashing the American Medical Association, advancing an unproven conspiracy theory about the Affordable Care Act, and offering what he thinks is best for Americans and their healthcare, is now accusing me of being a bully for responding.

Dr. James Veltmeyer, who heads Family Medicine at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa and who is by all accounts a skilled physician, issued the original press release to me last month. But he didn't ask a healthcare-related publicist to write and deliver the message. He instead sought a well-known political consultant, Andrew Russo, who has a long history in California Republican politics. 

OK. No problem. Everyone has a right to his or her political views. But as a patient advocate and three-time, 21-year cancer survivor, I was bugged that nowhere in Russo’s original press release about Veltmeyer did it point out that the views therein were Veltmeyer's alone and did not represent Sharp Grossmont Hospital or the parent Sharp HealthCare.

That stuck with me. Russo included Veltmeyer’s lofty Sharp title near the top of the press release, but never said Veltmeyer was not representing the hospital, which I should point out, too, has a fine reputation.

I'm not a fan of doctors who get too publicly political -- liberal or conservative. In their own time, sure, but they have a heightened and obvious obligation to make it very clear that they are not representing the hospital they work for when they go off on political diatribes.

Why is this so important to me? Because I care about patients. And a doctor with such strident political views can be off-putting and even stressful for suffering patients who may not agree with that doctor's views. 

Veltmeyer, whose motto evidently is "Republicans Are Leading San Diego" and who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year as a Republican in San Diego’s 53rd District, apparently got plenty of financial assistance from Sharp HealthCare, see this link

If he were my doctor, and he publicly stated the unproven theory that "Obamacare was designed to fail in order to pave the way to single-payer," I'd have a problem with that.

As I've written, Obamacare is far from perfect, but it has saved the lives of many, many cancer patients. A doctor certainly doesn’t have to endorse Obamacare, but to trash it when he must know how many cancer patients have benefitted from it is ill-advised and insensitive, at best.

Again, a doctor, even a leader in a hospital and a community, has every right to express his political opinion. But it comes with an obligation to make it very clear they are just your views. Veltmeyer simply didn't do that. But he's doing it now.

Contacting Sharp

After receiving the first press release, I contacted Sharp HealthCare's communications staff and told them one of their top docs was out there delivering political rants, identifying himself as a leader at Sharp, but not stating that the views were his and his alone.

I told them the press release looked as if it had Sharp's OK to write it. No disclaimer. One would think that either this doctor or his experienced publicist would be smart enough to remember to include the disclaimer. 

I asked Sharp publicists if they condoned the press release, and noted that Veltmeyer claims Obamacare was "designed to fail." I then asked Sharp to please show me the evidence that the Affordable Care Act was designed to fail.

"It’s kind of surprising that a prominent physician would delve this deeply into political waters, especially murky conspiratorial waters," I wrote. "Being very honest here:  If I were one of his patients, I would not be comfortable with him spewing this stuff."

In a subsequent note to Sharp, I also noted that the hospital has a "tacit responsibility to make sure what he [Veltmeyer] says and does publicly is ethical and professional. He's a leader at one of your hospitals, and he needs to say in his press release, up front, that his views do not necessarily reflect those of Sharp HealthCare. By not doing so, many who read his press release or read news coverage of his efforts will obviously think he is indeed speaking for the hospital."

The Sharp public relations team eventually responded, and while they didn't say much, they agreed with my basic point. They told me they had contacted Veltmeyer and told him not to release anything further without clearly stating that his views were his own.

A few days later, John Cihomsky, a spokesman for Sharp, emailed me with a more detailed explanation.

"To follow up, the doctor says he did not intend to represent the views of Sharp and can clarify that to anyone with an inquiry," Cihomsky noted. "He is speaking about his own experiences, both personal and professional. He understands that while he is the chair of Family Medicine for Sharp Grossmont he neither represents the department nor does he represent Sharp Grossmont in any unauthorized statements.  Feel free to follow up with him directly. Thanks."

I had told Russo, with some accompanying and justified attitude, that Veltmeyer needs to spend more time worrying about his patients and less time with politics. To which Russo responded, "A smart-ass and nasty remark like that relegates you to the junk file."

I also told Russo I was the one who told Sharp that Veltmeyer neglected to point out in the amateurish first press release they sent me that he was speaking only on his own behalf and not on Sharp's behalf. 

And I told Russo I was aware of Russo’s political background. I didn’t tell him that some of my best friends are Republicans, but I did ask him why a doctor would hire a Republican party operative to spread a message about healthcare.

"It's discomforting at best to see a doctor so partisan," I wrote. "He should either stick to medicine, or get into politics. Bridging the two is really problematic. Does he wear his GOP pin in the examination room?"

I also apologized for misspelling Veltmeyer's name in our email exchange, and then in a later email I included a link to a story I'd written a few years ago about an unethical doctor at Scripps who was unconscionably charging cancer patients $400-plus an hour for pain treatment, and generally not accepting insurance. 

Patients first. Always.

I'm a Bully?

In the press release Veltmeyer distributed today, he and Russo accuse me of bullying, harassment and hating doctors. Really, guys? I have an enormous amount of respect for doctors.

And I'm not the one who went public with this spat, I only contacted Sharp.

"Mr. Reno seems to have a grudge against doctors as there is evidence that this attack on me follows other attempts by him to discredit physicians and hospitals in the San Diego area. As a cancer survivor himself, you [sic] would think he could appreciate the struggle my family has been going through the last two years in my wife Laura’s ongoing battle with this disease,” Veltmeyer said. 

“Individuals like Mr. Reno sadly represent what largely passes for journalism today – totally focused on pursuing partisan political agendas rather than providing a fair and impartial forum for the exchange of ideas that can actually help people," he added. "In his actions, Jamie Reno discredits the many honest journalists who still respect and appreciate objectivity and truth.”

First of all, I of course had no idea that the doctor's family was dealing with cancer. I am truly sorry for that, and I of course wish his wife the very best. 

But to raise that in this press release today is cynical and weak. It's a failed deflection that doesn't change the issue at hand. 

Seeker of truth? That's me, Doc, not you. I simply wanted you to be honest and clearly state that these views are your own and not the hospital to which you are attached and widely identified. 

Technically, California hospitals cannot employ doctors. Hospitals instead contract with a medical group to which the doctor belongs. It's a kind of legal loophole, I suspect.

So, while Veltmeyer is not technically a Sharp employee, he is a member of the medical group with which Sharp contracts. But as I have said many times, patients simply do not make this distinction. 

If he hangs his shingle in a Sharp hospital, he is a Sharp doctor. Period. That is how most folks see it. And Veltmeyer now evidently does include in his press releases the key message that he does not speak for the hospital, that he only speaks for himself. 

So, mission accomplished!

Patients First

Meanwhile, their sensationalist press release today is just a lame effort to get out in front of this. They undoubtedly assumed I would write something about our exchange. I actually hadn't planned to, but I was keeping an eye on them.

I've had a proud 30-year run as a journalist and, since being diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 21 years ago, I’ve fought cancer three times -- currently in my fourth go-round -- and I've dedicated much of my life to helping, informing, inspiring and protecting cancer patients and their families nationally and globally.

I certainly do not put Veltmeyer in the "bad doctor" category. I have no reason to believe he is not a good physician. But it's ethically problematic when a physician licensed to provide equal care to all comers gets this partisan, this political, this divisive, and this ugly.

Doctors need to unambiguously identify the fact that they are only speaking for themselves and not for the healthcare companies for whom they work.

If any of this is "bullying" on my part, then, yes, I'll be a bully until the day I die. 

I repeat: Patients come first. And on that note, in an informal poll today, I asked several patients what they would think about having a doctor who was this publicly political and partisan.

One woman who is currently quite ill and asked not to be named, said, "In today's high-tech Google world, if I were having an invasive procedure, I would Google the doctor and it would make me highly uncomfortable knowing that their political views are so strongly opposing mine, and so public. It would make me feel extremely uncomfortable and I'd probably want to go with another doctor."


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