Screenshot by NPR/Fb
Simply earlier than Christmas, a right-wing journalist named Ben Bergquam grew to become critically unwell with COVID-19.
“My Christmas reward was dropping my [sense of] style and odor and having a 105 diploma fever, and simply feeling like rubbish,” Bergquam stated in a Fb video that he shot as he lay in a California hospital.
“It is scary. When you possibly can’t breathe, it is not a enjoyable place to be,” he stated.
Bergquam advised his viewers he wasn’t vaccinated, regardless of having had childhood bronchial asthma, a doubtlessly harmful underlying situation. As a substitute, he held up a bottle of the drug ivermectin. Nearly all medical doctors don’t advocate taking ivermectin for COVID, however many people on the political proper imagine that it really works.
The small print revealed in Bergquam’s video present a uncommon view into the prescription of an unproven COVID-19 remedy. Knowledge reveals that prescriptions for medicine like ivermectin have surged within the pandemic, however patient-doctor confidentiality usually obscures precisely who’s handing out the medicine.
Bergquam’s testimonial supplies new and troubling particulars a couple of small group of physicians who’re prepared to eschew the most effective COVID-19 therapies and supply various therapies made common by disinformation — for a worth.
Ivermectin is normally prescribed to deal with parasitic worms, and greatest medical proof thus far reveals that it does not work towards COVID-19. The Meals and Drug Administration, Nationwide Institutes of Well being, American Medical Affiliation and two pharmaceutical societies all discourage prescribing ivermectin for COVID-19, and lots of medical doctors and hospitals won’t give it to sufferers who’re searching for remedy.
However fueled by conspiracy theories about vaccine security and various therapies, many on the political proper incorrectly imagine ivermectin is a secret cure-all for COVID. As thousands and thousands of People fell unwell with COVID final summer season, the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention reported ivermectin prescriptions have been at 24 instances pre-pandemic ranges. The company says prescriptions once more rose in the course of the newest omicron surge.
A major variety of these prescriptions come from a small minority of medical doctors who’re prepared to put in writing them, usually utilizing telemedicine to take action, in response to Kolina Koltai, a misinformation researcher on the College of Washington. The identical medical doctors steadily promote anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
“They’re profiting off misinformation, utilizing their medical experience as forex,” she says.
A glance into the world of unproven COVID therapies
Bergquam advised his viewers he bought his ivermectin from a gaggle generally known as America’s Frontline Docs. Their chief, Physician Simone Gold, is at present going through a number of prices associated to her function within the revolt on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. She is well-known for spreading anti-vaccine propaganda, and he or she additionally tells audiences throughout the nation to present her a name for prescriptions of unproven medicine like ivermectin. Her group prices $90 for the decision, and Koltai believes the prescriptions are amongst its main sources of revenue.
“I’d reckon that telehealth and telemedicine is without doubt one of the main income-generating streams for America’s Frontline Docs,” she says.
Final 12 months, on-line publication The Intercept revealed a narrative primarily based on hacked paperwork, which confirmed the group was doubtlessly making thousands and thousands by promoting 1000’s of prescriptions (Gold denies that story in public speeches, saying that the hack didn’t in reality happen).
In his video Bergquam thanked the frontline medical doctors repeatedly for prescribing him ivermectin. In doing so, he revealed the identify of the licensed physician writing the prescription: Kathleen Ann Cullen.
Cullen, 54, relies out of Florida and has a troubling historical past of medical observe. She spent most of final 12 months beneath investigation by the State of Alabama, which finally revoked her medical license in November, two months earlier than Berquam entered the hospital. The trigger was her involvement in a separate telemedicine firm, in response to E. Wilson Hunter, normal counsel on the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners.
“She was working with a telemedicine firm and was using her medical license to additional their capacity to generate billable occasions, with out truly offering healthcare to the sufferers,” he says.
In different phrases, Cullen was ordering a battery of pricey genetic exams remotely, with out ever seeing and even talking to the sufferers she was testing. It was so dangerous, Wilson says, that she was ordering prostate most cancers screenings for feminine sufferers, who don’t have prostates.
The corporate Dr. Cullen was working for on the time was referred to as Bronson Medical LLC. It not has a functioning web site, and its proprietor pleaded responsible in 2020 to federal healthcare fraud prices.
When the Alabama board confronted Cullen, she failed to supply the affected person information.
“On the listening to she knew nothing, noticed nothing, heard nothing, understood nothing and didn’t take accountability for her actions,” Wilson says.
These usually are not the one blemishes on her file. Cullen’s medical license in Kansas was suspended for failure to pay charges. And her American Board of Inside Drugs certification has lapsed (the board declined to say when the lapse occurred).
In pandemic, doubtful prescriptions proceed
Regardless of these issues, Cullen nonetheless has lively medical licenses in North Carolina and Florida. It seems she is now utilizing these medical licenses to prescribe ivermectin on behalf of America’s Frontline Docs.
“The place’s the accountability in all of that?,” says Ashley Bartholomew, a nurse who’s with the group No License For Disinformation, a gaggle of medical professionals who’re attempting to pressure medical boards to take motion in instances like these.
Bartholomew was the primary to note Cullen’s identify on the bottle. She stated all the video made her nervous, as a result of Ben Bergquam gave the impression to be bringing in his personal outdoors remedy to a hospital setting:
“Is the nurse conscious he is additionally taking these prescribed drugs from this physician in Florida whereas he is a hospitalized affected person? And is his crew of medical doctors conscious? And is the pharmacy conscious?” she asks.
Even when they have been, she worries the video — which has 23,000 views on Fb — will encourage others to usher in outdoors meds, growing their danger for issues.
NPR contacted Bergquam, Cullen and America’s Frontline Docs, and none supplied remark for this text.
As for the states the place she nonetheless holds a license, public information present the Florida Division of Well being has filed two administrative complaints, however her licence is listed as clear and lively on their web site. They didn’t reply to repeated requests for remark. The North Carolina Medical Board in the meantime wouldn’t verify whether or not an investigation was underway, however Brian Blankenship, the board’s deputy normal counsel, says that investigations take time: “State Companies have to present individuals due course of rights primarily based on proof,” he says.
“What number of sufferers should undergo?”
Cullen’s case is considerably uncommon. The Federation of State Medical Boards says its knowledge present that 94% of medical doctors have licenses in only one or two states. The federation runs a database that helps notify states when disciplinary motion is taken.
“Inside a day after cataloging and categorizing the disciplinary order, we’ll share with different states and territories,” says Humayun Chaudhry, the federation’s president.
However usually states should conduct their very own, typically prolonged investigations. To streamline that course of, Chaudhry says that his group can be encouraging states to undertake a brand new “Interstate Medical Licensure Compact,” that when signed into legislation permits states to see when investigations are began towards a doctor, though just for physicians who search licensure by way of the compact.
For Ashley Bartholomew, the nurse combating disinformation, this case reveals simply how damaged America’s medical licensing equipment is. Cullen has already misplaced her license for poor telehealth practices, and but a tangle of state medical boards, legal guidelines, and procedures continues to permit her to put in writing prescriptions for questionable therapies.
“What number of sufferers should undergo from disinformation,” Bartholomew asks, “till we even have motion?”