Robert and Barbara Finch of Old Town both died last week after battling COVID-19. Credit: Matthew Finch / Courtesy of Birmingham Funeral Home

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William A. Sturrock, MD, is a former chief of family medicine at Eastern Maine Medical Center. He is also the past president of the Maine Public Health Association.

My heart broke when I read the recent article in the Bangor Daily News regarding the couple from Old Town who died from COVID-19, just weeks after their 48 th  wedding anniversary. They were well-respected members of the community, and were both retired educators. Their son indicated that they had been advised by “a medical professional,” the BDN reported, to avoid the COVID vaccine.

As a physician, I see this outcome as more than a tragedy; it is an outrage that calls for action. Without knowing the identity of the purported “medical professional,” I started thinking about how this very term has become muddied in our culture. What does it take to call oneself a medical professional with the right to treat members of society? Or even to just give valid medical advice?

In all 50 states, anyone who aspires to take on the responsibility for providing medical advice as a physician needs to become licensed and held accountable to the state boards of medicine. Just as when we purchase a ticket for a flight from Bangor to Boston, we expect the pilot to have the training to fly a plane load of passengers safely to its destination. Similarly the state boards ensure that all licensees have passed the required training and demonstrate ongoing use of the latest scientifically proven standards of care.  

It used to be clear which professionals met these standards, by checking whether they had an MD or DO after their names. Now, there are providers whose licenses are valid but more limited and who don’t have the expertise and education to advise on vaccinations.

Also, we have become more skeptical of the pronouncements of highly trained professionals, and more likely to follow the mantra of “Question Authority” seen on the car bumper in front of us.  

Unfortunately there is no shortage of self-described “experts,” from internet influencers, new-age gurus and talk show hosts, all eager to convince the gullible of their brand of truth or sell their version of snake oil. We even have well-intentioned professionals such as pastors and allied health providers who are willing to share their strongly-held but not scientifically derived opinions about viruses and vaccines.

So what is the path out of this fog of misinformation? Just like we would not expect Dr. Anthony Fauci to fly our jet to Boston, we should not consider taking the advice of a jet pilot on how to treat a viral pandemic. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to seek medical advice only from those licensed with a medical degree. Additionally, these professionals need to be held accountable for providing the best advice and treatment, or face consequences.  

Recently, I learned of disciplinary action taken by the Oregon Board of Medicine on this very subject. This board fined a physician $10,000 and revoked his medical license for, among other violations, spreading misinformation which included allegations that the COVID isn’t serious and that mask wearing is unsafe.  

If you lost a loved one from this Oregon physician’s malpractice you might view this action as insufficient, but it might prevent this doctor from abetting the needless deaths of others. We owe it to our families and communities to stand up to those whose careless errors bring increased risk of illness to all of us. We also need to be responsible and only accept medical advice from trusted professionals with the proper credentials.

It’s not about red states versus blue, left or right or resisting tyranny. It’s about having the compassion to care enough about our neighbors by taking actions proven to work in ending a pandemic. While it is too late to bring back this good couple from Old Town, our resolve to follow basic public health practices, such as wearing masks in public and getting vaccinated, will be our best hope to clear this deadly fog and allow us to return to the safe harbor of our lives.