Medical professionals have long subscribed to an elevated code of ethics. But if the basic rules haven't changed since the first time an ancient Greek doctor took the Hippocratic oath, the level of scrutiny has. Social media and everlasting digital footprints have placed physicians - like many professionals - at perpetual risk of having their ostensibly private sins revealed to the public.
In this month's newsletter, we look at a few recent instances of doctors and future doctors generating controversy from racist or anti-Semitic opinions and actions that eventually became public. We explore the limits of free speech for medical professionals in a time of increased scrutiny.
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The scourge of anti-Semitic (future) doctors
Another future doctor has been found to have made anti-Semitic comments on social media.
As first reported by the watchdog group Canary Mission, Walid Khass has posted a stream of invective directed against Israel and Jews. At times profanity-laced, the comments praise Hamas and call for the destruction of Israel. The most offensive posts target Jews, or "yahood," using calls for violence and conspiracy theories.
Khass has also referred to "niggas" in some posts, a term that many consider racially offensive but which has a more complex history and meaning than the "n-word" itself.
Khass studies at the St. George's University (SGU) School of Medicine, in Grenada. The school is affiliated with institutions in Canada and the U.S., including the Jewish Hospital in Ohio and the Bergen Regional Medical Center in New Jersey. Khass completed his undergraduate studies in New York City at Hunter College.
Here are some of the most objectionable posts from the St. George's student:
- Describing an ideal "outfit of the day" as “Israeli blood" (July 2015)
- Applauding the idea of "yekta el yahood [Kill the Jews]" (December 2014)
- Commenting: "@Pali_dime Go Beat Up A Zionist, You're Not You When You Don't Beat Up A Zionist" (November 2014)
- Posting: "quran chapter 2 take not the christians and the jews for friends — I'm Muslim And Know" (August 2014)
- Suggesting that "[president of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi Mother Is A Yahoodi [Jew]. That Should Mean A Lot To You. A Higher Group Run The Corrupt World." (August 2014)
- Saying that "[a] Moroccan Jew Just Walked In With The Yamaca [yarmulke] At My Shop, I Never Been More Disgraced And I Ain't Even Moroccan" (July 2014)
Khass, who graduated university in 2014, seems to have tempered his venom in recent years. The most recent overtly anti-Semitic post dates to 2016, although he posted on Twitter to criticize Israel in 2017. (He has since deleted his Twitter account.)
DARA has contacted administrators at St. George's University medical school, who said they are looking into the situation.
Reading the list of Khass's posts would cause any Jewish person to fear using him as their physician. Many medical professionals will also point out that his comments are incompatible with the Hippocratic Oath.
But others will argue that he should not lose the opportunity to practice medicine. He has not expressed anti-Semitism recently, they will say - at least not that has been reported. They would argue that there should be a statute of limitations on young aspiring doctors making hateful comments - an opportunity to demonstrate change. That said, would his defenders be so quick to support Khass's career goals if he had posted similarly about African-Americans?
Walid Khass vs. Lara Kollab: Is there a difference?
The case of Walid Khass is both similar to and different from that of Lara Kollab. Kollab is the Cleveland-area resident who was terminated late last year for posting anti-Semitic comments on social media. Her comments were reported widely by mainstream media organizations, who generally agreed with the decision of the Cleveland Clinic.
No such outrage greeted Walid Khass, who spewed similar hate against both Israel and Jews. Why not?
Two points distinguish the two cases. First, Kollab was a first-year resident, more advanced in her career than Khass. She also worked in an clinic that serviced a large Jewish population. While the St. George's student has begun clinical rotations, he is still in school.
The second point may be more important. Kollab, it should be recalled, had posted that she would "purposely give all the yahood the wrong meds." This concrete wish, or joke, to kill Jews while practising medicine made the decision an easy one for the Cleveland Clinic.
For what it is worth, Kollab has apologized to the Jewish community. She claims she has matured since she posted in 2012 about killing Jews.
When blackface skeletons emerge from the medical closet
If skeletons can emerge from the closet to harm physicians, they can downright terrorize physicians-turned-politicians.
That is just one of the lessons we can learn from the saga of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, whose medical school yearbook page included a picture of an individual wearing blackface and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
Northam, who attended Eastern Virginia Medical School in the 1980s, initially apologized for appearing in the racially offensive photo before later reversing himself, claiming that he did not believe he was neither the faux Klansmen or the man in blackface. He has, however, acknowledged wearing blackface on another occasion, when paying homage to a favourite musical performer.
Now other graduates of the medical school have admitted to wearing blackface, and the school's president has vowed to release a report analyzing the school's history of racist photos over the years.
The photos are "shockingly racist, repugnant," "unprofessional" and "inappropriate," said Richard Homan, president of the medical school.
Northam has resisted calls from Republicans and members of his own Democratic party to resign, and from civil rights groups.
The scandal adds a wrinkle for physicians. The practice of wearing blackface is today considered offensive. But it was not always so. Even as late as the 1980s, Billy Crystal used the black makeup to play Sammy Davis Jr. on Saturday Night Live. The climate had changed by 2012, when Crystal was criticized for reviving his impersonation of the comic legend at the Academy Awards.
Physicians can hardly predict the future of politically correct discourse. But they will increasingly be subject to the kind of scrutiny made possible by historical records that rarely fade completely. Monitoring and assessing past actions by aspiring physicians will test the limits of freedom of speech, medical ethics and common sense - and then balancing against apparent danger to human life.