When you see something ...


Over the last several decades science has fallen off this country’s radar screen. Yes, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has recently had a brief moment in the spotlight as a buzzword de jour. But the critical importance of careful and systematic investigation into the world around us using observation and trial and error is a tough sell to a large segment of our population.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is providing an excellent opportunity for science and medicine to showcase their star qualities. Of course some people in leadership positions persist in disregarding the value of scientific investigation. But I get the feeling that the fear generated by the pandemic is creating some converts among many previous science skeptics. This gathering enthusiasm among the general population is a predictably slow process because that’s the way science works. It often doesn’t provide quick answers. And it is difficult for the nonscientist to see the beauty in the reality that the things we thought were true 2 months ago are likely to be proven wrong today as more observations accumulate.

Unfortunately, even in this time of renewal, science and medicine continue to generate a bumper crop of bad apples. A recent New York Times article examines the career of one such unscrupulous physician/scientist whose recent exploits threaten to undo much of the positive image the pandemic has cast on science (“The Doctor Behind the Disputed Covid Data,” by Ellen Gabler and Roni Caryn Rabin, The New York Times, July 27, 2020). The subject of the article is the physician who was responsible for providing some of the large data sets on which several papers were published about the apparent ineffectiveness and danger of using hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients. The authenticity of the data sets recently has been seriously questioned, and the articles have been retracted by the journals in which they had appeared.

Based on numerous interviews with coworkers, the Times reporters present a strong case that this individual’s long history of unreliability make his association with allegedly fraudulent data set not surprising but maybe even predictable. At one point in his training, there appears to have been serious questions about advancing the physician to the next level. Despite these concerns, he was allowed to continue and complete his specialty training. It is of note that in his last year of clinical practice, the physician became the subject of three serious malpractice claims that question his competence.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

I suspect that some of you have crossed paths with physicians whose competence and/or moral character you found concerning. Were they peers? Were you the individual’s supervisor or was he or she your mentor? How did you respond? Did anyone respond at all?

There has been a lot written and said in recent months about how and when to respond to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. But I don’t recall reading any articles that discuss how one should respond to incompetence. Of course competency can be a relative term, but in most cases significant incompetence is hard to miss because it tends to be repeated.

It is easy for the airports and subway systems to post signs that say “If you see something say something.” It’s a different story for hospitals and medical schools that may have systems in place for reporting and following up on poor practice. But my sense is that there are too many cases that slip through the cracks.

This is another example of a problem for which I don’t have a solution. However, if this column prompts just one of you who sees something to say something then I have had a good day.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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