- A licensed New York pediatrician named Lawrence Palevsky has spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines for years.
- Palevsky has ramped up his efforts amid outbreaks of measles largely driven by misleading anti-vaccine rhetoric.
- Doctors like Palevsky are prompting some in the medical community to question whether physicians should lose their licence for expressing anti-vaccine views.
- Legal experts say revoking a doctor’s licence for expressing an opinion would be unprecedented.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
On May 13, hundreds of parents packed into a catering hall in Monsey, New York, for an event billed as a “Vaccine Symposium.” Monsey is a hamlet in Rockland County, which is struggling to contain an unprecedented outbreak of measles. But the event’s organisers weren’t there to educate the crowd on how vaccines can halt the spread of the illness, which can be fatal. They were there to promote a pernicious and discredited message that health officials have blamed for the outbreak: that vaccines endanger young children.
Hardly any of the symposium’s speakers, which included a YouTube host and a Washington lobbyist, practice medicine. The exception was a 57-year-old pediatrician named Lawrence Palevsky, who sees patients in Manhattan and the nearby Suffolk County on Long Island. His clinic’s website promises “personalised, comprehensive consultations” to address “children’s wellness, and acute and chronic illnesses.”
“Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of mothers … have witnessed children regressing after they get the MMR,” Palevsky told the crowd, largely composed of members of Rockland’s Orthodox Jewish community, according to a Gothamist reporter who attended the event. (“MMR” refers to the combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella.) He reportedly added: “Children stop talking, they don’t look at you, they start flapping their arms, they start banging their head.”
As a doctor, Palevsky pledged his loyalty to the medical profession and promised not to harm patients. Yet for at least a decade, he has delivered lectures, attended local meetups, and given interviews in which he has publicly opposed the mandatory vaccination of minors and linked certain vaccines to disorders like regressive autism. In April, The New York Times described Palevsky as an “anti-vaccine proponent,” while NBC News called him “a star in the anti-vaccine world.”
Figures like Palevsky are drawing audiences, and provoking alarm, in the midst of a public health crisis fuelled almost exclusively by the failure of some parents to vaccinate their children. Their efforts have revived a long-standing debate in the medical and legal establishments over whether doctors who spread falsehoods about vaccines should be seen as violating standards of professional conduct.
Palevsky’s anti-vaccine views have drawn the ire of the medical establishment
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s School of Medicine, said Palevsky’s conduct was incompatible with his role as a healthcare provider. “I absolutely believe New York state should revoke Palevsky’s licence, because he’s advocating breaking the standard of care and spreading misinformation, putting children and the public at risk,” he told INSIDER. “It’s especially important in an outbreak, which could turn into a full-bore epidemic.”
“There are standards of care created by medicine, created by pediatricians, by experts,” he added. “If you violate those, you should lose your licence.”
Palevsky is neither the first nor the most famous doctor to criticise vaccines. Elements of the modern anti-vaccine movement can be traced to a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield, who lost his medical licence over a discredited study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. (He appeared at the symposium in Monsey via video conference.) And Rand Paul, the ophthalmologist serving as the junior US senator from Kentucky, denounced mandatory vaccination as recently as this March, citing personal-liberty concerns.
But few licensed, practicing physicians have aligned themselves with the anti-vaccination movement in the way Palevsky has. The Vaccine Safety Handbook, an infamous and error-laden anti-vaccine brochure anonymously distributed throughout New York City – and seemingly targeted at Orthodox Jewish parents – instructs readers to call a Manhattan phone number to listen to an “interview with pediatrician Lawrence Palevsky, M.D., including what he learned in medical school about vaccines.”
Palevsky’s résumé makes him particularly valuable to the anti-vaccine movement, which has long sought mainstream legitimacy. After graduating from New York University’s School of Medicine in 1987, he worked and taught at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Lenox Hill Hospital, and New York Medical College. If you didn’t know about his anti-vaccine beliefs, you would be forgiven for thinking Palevsky was merely an accomplished pediatrician.
There are, however, certain discrepancies in his professional history. The website of Palevsky’s clinic repeatedly describes him as a “board certified pediatrician.” That status is conferred by the American Board of Pediatrics, which continually tests pediatricians to ensure they have up-to-date training and expertise in the field. But a representative for the board told INSIDER that Palevsky’s most recent certification expired at the end of 2014.
A physician database maintained by New York state indicates Palevsky has admission privileges at two hospitals affiliated with the well-regarded Mount Sinai Health System, Beth Israel, and St. Luke’s. While the database shows Palevsky’s entry was last updated in March 2018 and is “based on the information supplied by the physician who is the subject of the data,” the hospital said it was inaccurate. “Dr. Palevsky had not been affiliated with Mount Sinai since the late ’90s,” a spokeswoman, Lucia L. Lee, said. “The site that you referenced is clearly out of date.”
It would be difficult, and probably unprecedented, to strip a doctor of a medical licence solely for expressing anti-vaccine views
It may seem like a no-brainer to revoke the licence of a physician who regularly spreads false, discredited information that, if relied on, could result in preventable injury or death. But state health departments, which licence doctors and regulate the medical industry, have traditionally drawn a bright line between what doctors say in public and how they treat their patients. Regulators monitor what happens in the exam room or surgical theatre, but they leave doctors free to speak their minds everywhere else.
This explains why, in 2015, the Arizona Board of Osteopathic Examiners declined to take action against the cardiologist Jack Wolfson over a series of interviews in which he argued that children had a “right” to contract the measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox without the interference of vaccines. Nearly 40 people filed complaints against Wolfson in 2015, but in a 4-1 vote, the board held that he had a First Amendment right to speak his mind about vaccines and that “no complaints have been filed by patients” regarding Wolfson’s “actual medical care.”
In 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals expressed a comparable distinction in its decision to uphold a California law barring licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy on LGBTQ minors: “Outside the doctor-patient relationship, doctors are constitutionally equivalent to soapbox orators and pamphleteers, and their speech receives robust protection under the First Amendment.”
The most prominent example of a health board sanctioning a vaccine critic was ultimately about record-keeping, not the content of the critic’s views. In 2018, the Medical Board of California sought to revoke the licence of Bob Sears, who advises parents that “you can safely raise an unvaccinated child in today’s society,” for failing to take a detailed medical history and maintain proper records when he wrote a letter exempting a 2-year-old patient from vaccinations. (California requires a doctor’s note to avoid vaccines; the board stayed its decision pending the completion of probation and continuing education classes.)
In a statement to INSIDER, the New York State Department of Health was careful to distinguish between Palevsky’s public statements, which it regards as beyond its purview, and his patient care.
While “the New York State Department of Health will continue our extensive public outreach campaign to educate people on the facts about vaccinations and to counter misinformation that has fuelled this outbreak,” the department spokeswoman Jill Montag said, “the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to speak and express opinions about controversial topics without fear of government retaliation. Matters involving specific patients in the practice of medicine may, however, become the subject of an investigation.”
Asked whether Palevsky was the subject of such an investigation, Montag responded: “The Department cannot confirm or deny the existence of a [misconduct] investigation of a physician, unless charges are served upon the physician, or a public action is taken by the Board.”
Palevsky did not return repeated messages seeking comment.
Eugene Volokh, a constitutional-law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied how states wield occupational licenses to punish certain forms of speech, argues that, in the absence of evidence that any specific patients are being harmed, Palevsky should be free to spout unscientific nonsense. That freedom, he says, is an integral part of the scientific process.
“This is an important First Amendment protection,” Volokh told INSIDER. “How do we know that a consensus on scientific questions such as this is right? Precisely because we know that scientists, doctors, and others are free to challenge that consensus, and that other scientists and doctors have heard those challenges and continue to reject them. Whenever the government coerces people to stop critiquing this sort of established opinion, that undermines the very foundation for that opinion.”
Caplan, the NYU professor, disagreed. “The science is rock solid,” he said. “It’s not something that’s being bolstered because there is a constant challenge. The only people who are challenging it are fringe individuals who are nonscientists.”
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