I serve as Chief Medical Officer of Partnership Health Center (PHC), a non-profit, Community Health Center and division of Missoula County. In my 20-plus years of practicing as a family medicine physician, many patients and friends have asked me how I arrive at specific health recommendations for my patients.
This is a perfectly reasonable question, and it is critical for the public to understand this process as we work to end the COVID-19 pandemic as quickly as possible.
Physicians complete rigorous training. Four years of college, four years of medical school and a minimum of three years of residency (on the job training) all contribute to an astonishing body of knowledge about how to promote health and wellness. Yet, the field of medical science is constantly growing and changing in response to new research and scientific evidence. So how do medical providers like me keep up?
The answer is simple: We work as a team.
No single doctor can keep up with the massive body of growing and changing medical science, even with mandated continuing medical education requirements to maintain licensure. That is why we rely on key teammates like the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These organizations exist, in part, to help medical providers analyze enormous amounts of data and research, and therefore make health recommendations for their patients that reflect the ongoing evolution of medical science.
However, medical providers like me don’t trust these organizations’ recommendations blindly. Rather, we trust in the formula that has propelled medicine to countless advancements and breakthroughs: rigorous scientific evaluation.
Recommendations from these organizations are always based on peer reviewed scientific evaluation, and they are subject to the scrutiny of doctors taking the advice. If these organizations waver from the formula of rigorous scientific evaluation, they are called out by their audience (practicing physicians) and asked to go back to the drawing board.
If your loved one is rushed to the hospital for an emergency, the treatments they receive will be the end-product of rigorous scientific evaluation. That’s how medical providers know the treatment is effective. Indeed, that’s how we know it is an ethical treatment to provide – not because a single person said it works, but rather because it cleared the extremely high bar of scientific evaluation by thousands of highly trained physicians and medical researchers.
The medical recommendations from organizations like the AAFP, AMA, AAP and CDC have resulted in better health outcomes for my patients throughout my career. Yet even with this stellar track record, my trust in their recommendations is always dependent on the rigorous scientific evaluation that underpins those recommendations.
In a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, we often refer to the community as “the patient.” Accordingly, we must, as a community, act together to beat back the virus that has taken over 660,000 American lives.
The alternative – disunion brought about by reliance on misinformation – will inevitably lead to countless more preventable deaths, overwhelmed hospitals unable to meet medical needs, burnt out and traumatized medical professionals, and a pandemic that lasts far longer than necessary.
Fortunately for all of us, the process that my medical colleagues and I use to provide good advice to individual patients scales up perfectly to the community (public health) level. The Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD) can be thought of as our community’s medical provider in the battle against COVID-19, and all of their public-health recommendations have been based on the trustworthy objective formula of rigorous scientific evaluation.
Whether generating guidance for a nation to battle a pandemic or for an individual to battle a disease, the CDC’s recommendations – which the MCCHD follows closely – relies on the same trustworthy formula.
We are constantly learning about COVID-19 and recommendations about how to deal with this virus may change as new data becomes available. Changing recommendations, however, do not mean that public health officials like the MCCHD or the CDC “got it wrong.” They are simply learning more and sticking to a science-based process. The change reflects an honesty and integrity which confirms their sincere pursuit of the best outcomes for our community.
Our communities face so many challenges stemming from this pandemic. All of those challenges – medical, educational, economic, etc. – stem from the existence of a rapidly spreading, deadly virus. The reliance on robust scientific evaluation has allowed us to defeat threats to public and individual health for decades; threats that we thought could never be conquered. We can defeat COVID-19, but we must do so together, following the science.
Please get vaccinated, wear a mask, socially distance and keep each other safe.
Dr. Quirk is the Chief Medical Officer at Partnership Health Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center serving approximately 15,000 patients annually in Missoula and Mineral Counties.