Skepticism now starts at the top in one Florida hospital

Sarasota (Fla.) Memorial Hospital is undergoing significant changes to its governance with the election of three trustees who operate under the ideology of "medical freedom" and exercise skepticism about hospitals, clinicians and COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

In what is one more example of how once-obscure offices can become political battlegrounds, the addition of three medical freedom proponents to the governing body of a hospital seems to be the first event of its kind. Four medical freedom candidates ran for seats on the nine-member board overseeing 895-bed Sarasota Memorial earlier this year, with three landing positions on the governing body. The public hospital has board members who represent districts but are elected by voters countywide for staggered four-year terms. 

The new trustees were recruited to run for the board by a Sarasota County resident and former emergency room physician Stephen Guffanti, MD, who created viral videos about his experience receiving COVID-19 treatment at Sarasota Memorial, claiming the hospital functioned as "a jail" that profits from patient deaths on site. 

While the three medical freedom activists are a minority on the board, the hospital has already seen its meetings and agenda take a turn, NPR reported Dec. 21. 

For the first meeting in November, more than 200 attendees showed up — the largest turnout the chairman, Tramm Hudson, has seen in his eight years on the board. In that meeting, self-described "health freedom activists" demanded an investigation of hospital management during the pandemic and criticized leadership for not tailoring care options to include treatments for COVID-19 frequently discussed on social media, podcasts and talk radio but not backed by science, such as ivermectin. 

Many Sarasota Memorial physicians and nurses spoke at the board meeting to defend themselves and the hospital from accusations that they failed the community. 

"Doctors want to help people. That is the reason we all do this," said Sarah Temple, MD, an emergency medicine physician. "Despite our most heroic efforts — weekly meetings where we scoured the newest evidence and looked for things that would actually work; the incredible teamwork, dedication and hard work that I saw from my colleagues throughout the hospital — we just couldn't save so many of our patients." 

Clinicians' insights failed to alleviate the skepticism, however, and the new board members successfully pushed for an investigation of Sarasota Memorial's COVID-19 protocols. Mr. Hudson, as chairman, is hopeful the review will put people at ease.

A hospital spokesperson confirmed to NPR that the internal review will look into "specific, individual patient care concerns expressed at the recent hospital board meeting" and leadership is "taking a broader look at care throughout the pandemic, to review the lessons learned and plan for the future." Findings will be made public by March. 

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