— This past week in healthcare investigations
Jennifer Henderson, Enterprise & Investigative Writer, MedPage Today
January 11, 2023
Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
Anti-Vaxxers Blast Doc Over Fake Tweet That Made Rogan
Earlier this month, Miami physician Natalia Solenkova, MD, woke up to a flood of new Twitter followers and thousands who were unexpectedly angry with her, NBC News reported. But Solenkova — who had built a following of 30,000 on the platform during the pandemic by discussing her work in underserved communities and combatting misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines — had no idea why.
A plethora of tweets, comments, and direct messages across social media asked why Solenkova had deleted a particularly troubling tweet that purportedly had stated, “I will never regret the vaccine. Even if it turns out I injected actual poison and have only days to live. My heart is and was in the right place. I got vaccinated out of love, while anti-vaxxers did everything out of hate. If I have to die because of my love for the world, then so be it. But I will never regret or apologize for it.”
But Solenkova never wrote that tweet. It was actually a “cheap fake,” a term used to describe a piece of fake media that “takes little effort to produce,” according to NBC News.
Solenkova petitioned Twitter to remove the tweet, but it had already gone viral, garnering millions of views, being shared by right-wing commentators, and even making its way to a discussion by Joe Rogan on his ultra-popular podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
Rogan later took removed the discussion from the episode and subsequently re-published it, issuing an apology after learning the tweet was fake, according to NBC News.
Still, Solenkova is worried the fake tweet could wind up in a complaint to a medical board or in her Google results.
Daniel Uhlfelder, Solenkova’s attorney and a former Democratic candidate for Florida attorney general, sent Rogan a pre-suit cease letter and tweeted that his firm was “extremely proud” to represent Solenkova “in order to hold those accountable for what they did to her.”
Physician’s License Suspended for Lying About COVID Vax
Wisconsin family medicine physician Scott Stillwell, MD, had his license suspended for 30 days after he falsely reported he and his family were vaccinated against COVID-19, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.
The 64-year-old’s license was suspended on December 21 for a 2021 infraction while Stillwell still practiced at a De Pere clinic, the Press-Gazette reported. In July, the physician opened the Stillwell Family Medicine Clinic in Suamico.
While practicing at the De Pere clinic, Stillwell allegedly used a medical assistant’s credentials to log in to the Wisconsin Immunization Registry in May or June of 2021 and falsely claim that he and his family had received the COVID vaccine at the clinic, the Press-Gazette reported.
The order from the medical board stated that the clinic discovered the false report at the beginning of last year, and that Stillwell admitted to not being vaccinated. He resigned in February 2022, telling health officials he was opposed to vaccine mandates for hospitals and was concerned about the safety of the COVID vaccines, the Press-Gazette reported. Stillwell is said to have further stated that his family had developed “‘natural immunity'” against COVID and was not a danger to the public.
The Press-Gazette reported that Stillwell was not able to be reached for comment, and that his attorney declined comment.
At 71, Cancer Patient Defied Clinical Trial Guidelines
When Mikhail Rubin, now 72, learned that his lethal blood disease had progressed, he came to the conclusion that he wanted a stem-cell transplant through a clinical trial, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported. But it wouldn’t be an easy path as Rubin’s age made him too old to participate.
Many cancer trials cap enrollment at 65, WSJ noted. And in other instances, oncologists are hesitant to enroll older patients because frailties might render them less resilient when it comes to potential side effects from toxic treatments.
Rubin wanted to join a clinical trial testing stem and immune cells engineered by Menlo Park, Calif.-based biotech Orca Bio, WSJ reported. Though the trial’s age limit was working against him, he had a couple factors in his favor.
First, Rubin’s son-in-law is an Orca Bio founder, and was able to put in a request to the transplant physician leading the trial to treat Rubin and consider lifting the trial’s age limit, WSJ reported. Additionally, there has also been a broader push to open more trials to older cancer patients, with FDA guidelines recommending “adequate representation,” including people over the age of 75, WSJ added.
Everett Meyer, MD, PhD, Rubin’s transplant doctor at Stanford University, told WSJ that Rubin’s age did indeed give him pause, despite his fitness level.
“You always worry about the unexplainable things,” Meyer told WSJ. “You see elderly patients who after a transplant fail to thrive and you don’t know exactly what is wrong.”
However, after discussing data on younger trial participants and results for those who had received standard transplants, Meyer as well as Rubin and his family “started to coalesce” around the idea of participation, WSJ reported.
“Sometimes it takes a patient coming into your room to help push the boundaries,” Meyer told WSJ.
Ultimately, the age of participation was raised to 72, with two other patients over 65 also having received transplants in the trial, WSJ reported. Rubin’s transplant took place in April 2021. Three months later, he was given the go-ahead to begin riding his bike again, and he told WSJ he logged 3,000 miles last year.
Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.