It sounds like a plot line from a dystopian novella, but it’s real and happening right now: your doctor may be being forced to lie to you, and you have no way of knowing if what they are telling you is based on their expertise and scientific consensus, or if they are just mouthing the words of a politician you’ve never met.
For years now, politicians have been passing laws that sometimes gag doctors from sharing certain information with patients, and sometimes require them to outright lie. Some of these laws go beyond demanding doctors read from scripts, and require them to arbitrarily delay a procedure or perform medically unnecessary procedures such as, most notoriously, a transvaginal ultrasound.
At least 33 states have already passed these laws, sometimes called “government intrusion” bills or “legislative interference” because they interfere with the sacred relationship between a patient and his or her medical provider. These laws undermine the concept of informed consent, which is the very foundation of healthcare in the United States.
“Politics in the Exam Room, a Growing Threat” is a recent report published by the National Partnership for Women & Families, National Physicians Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. It explores the rise of government interference laws and highlights three areas where political agendas have intruded into exam rooms in harmful ways: the clinical management of toxic exposures; gun safety; and reproductive healthcare.
Pennsylvania, for example, restricts how much information doctors can share with patients and colleagues about the chemicals used in fracking, or hydraulic fracturing—a controversial technique for extracting natural gas, that entails drilling into the ground and blasting a mix of chemicals, sand and water into rock to release the resource. Fracking operations are occurring in at least 22 states. A recent study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health links fracking to premature births and high-risk pregnancies, among other health concerns. Yet, Pennsylvania physicians treating patients for exposure to fracking chemicals are required to sign confidentiality agreements that protect drillers’ trade secrets and deter the sharing of medical knowledge about this form of toxic exposure. In Pennsylvania alone, 53,000 children live within one mile of a fracking site.
In Florida, lawmakers passed a bill that effectively gagged pediatricians from asking about gun storage methods at home, even though such dialogue is explicitly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, given that we live in a country where there is such a thing as a “toddler shootings” count. The law was amended after a court challenge. From the “Politics in the Exam Room” report: “Under this vague framework, a doctor who believes, consistent with medical guidelines, that discussions about the presence of firearms in the home are always relevant to preventive healthcare may find herself subject to disciplinary action.”
The majority of these laws, however, explicitly target women and girls seeking care by requiring medical providers to lie or give patients misleading information about reproductive healthcare. For example, five states have passed laws requiring medical professionals to give patients false information about a link between abortion and breast cancer. Nine states mandate biased pre-abortion counseling that emphasizes negative responses to terminating a pregnancy. Two states require providers to tell patients medical abortion (that is, abortion via pills rather than surgery) is “reversible,” a claim medical experts call “misleading.”
Now, the good news: Medical professionals tired of being forced to choose between being ethical and complying with these newfangled laws are organizing and fighting back. They’re saying no matter what you personally believe about fracking, guns and reproductive healthcare, politicians don’t belong in doctors’ exam rooms at all, and they certainly shouldn’t be acting like ventriloquists, forcing words into the mouths of medical providers.
So far, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the National Physicians Alliance have taken the lead in organizing medical experts to fight back against these insidious efforts to control the medical choices of private citizens.
Progressive legislators are fighting back, too. Right now, all eyes are on my home state of Pennsylvania—which in 2012 proposed a mandatory ultrasound law that would have required doctors to record whether or not a patient looked at the ultrasound screen in documents filed with the government. Here, Rep. Dan Frankel (D) has proposed a bill dubbed the “Patient Trust Act.”
The Patient Trust Act would prohibit the passage of laws that require doctors and medical providers to give advice and information that is not medically accurate. The Patient Trust Act is one bill in a broader PA Agenda for Women’s Heath, a bold legislative package sponsored and supported by the Women’s Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania Legislature, a bipartisan, pro-choice group of lawmakers committed to promoting evidence-based policy solutions to real problems faced by real women and families.
Sound radical? Of course not. Evidence-based medical advice is basic healthcare—at least, it should be.
Photo via Flickr user Steve Rhodes licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Tara Murtha is a journalist, author of Ode to Billie Joe and associate director of strategic communications at Women’s Law Project, the only public interest legal organization devoted to women’s rights in Pennsylvania. To stay up to date on the Patient Trust Act, sign up to Women’s Law Project’s blog and action alerts. Follow Tara on Twitter.