When Pediatricians Become Politicians

Timothy Wheeler, MD

Do you own a gun? How many guns do you have? Do your children have access to guns in your home? Did you know that having a gun in your home triples your risk of becoming a homicide victim?

These are questions your doctor may ask you or your children as part of routine physical examinations or questionnaires. All the gun-related questions you are likely to encounter in doctors' offices, especially pediatricians, are based on doctor groups' political movement against gun owners. That movement is spearheaded by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), although the American Medical Association (AMA) and other physician groups have launched similar efforts against gun owners.

With a few very rare exceptions, such questions about guns do not reflect a physician's concern about gun safety. Rather, they are intended to intimidate or prejudice impressionable and trusting children (and their parents) into thinking that guns are somehow bad.

That political motive makes these questions ethically wrong. This form of professional misconduct is known as a boundary violation. Any doctor who asks these politically-motivated questions about your guns, either directly or on a questionnaire, should be disciplined.

And who can discipline the physician? You, the almighty consumer. That's right. If you, the patient or parent, file a formal written complaint with the offending doctor's HMO or medical group, your complaint will be taken seriously. The doctor will be asked to respond to it. In any case, your polite but firm protest will be a black mark on his or her record that will likely make him or her think twice before repeating the offense.

Patients not enrolled in a health plan (HMO) may see a private practice doctor in a small group or solo practice. Unethical behavior by such a doctor can be reported to your county medical society, which is likely to have a public service committee whose job it is to review complaints from the public. Although federal anti-trust laws have mostly stripped these committees of their enforcement powers, they can still get an erring physician's attention.

Medicine has become an extremely competitive service industry. HMO's and medical groups are trying harder than ever to please consumers and not anger them. The last thing a doctor wants these days, next to a malpractice suit, is a health plan member complaint alleging unethical conduct.

If the doctor persists or is especially inappropriate, you can send that formal complaint to the doctor's state licensing board. You can search your state government's web site to find your state's medical licensing board. This site should describe the procedure for formal consumer complaints. Also you can look in your phone book under state government for your state medical board's consumer hot line. Boards generally accept only written complaints.

A consumer complaint to the medical licensing board is a last resort, and it will be a definite blemish on the doctor's career. But it may be necessary for repeat offenders. This step will apply enormous pressure on the boundary-violating physician, even if the state board takes no official action against his or her license.

To summarize: you don't have to suffer in silence and you don't have to disclose personal information about your gun ownership to politically-motivated doctors. And most important, you can strike back at unethical doctors who abuse your trust to advance a political agenda against law-abiding gun owning families.

I discuss the ethical basis for all this in my article "Boundary Violation: Gun Politics in the Doctor's Office," published in the March/April 1999 issue of the Medical Sentinel and posted at

Dr. Wheeler is the Director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership and co-author of Firearms: A Handbook for Health Professionals, published by The Claremont Institute. His e-mail is [email protected]

This article was published in the
Medical Sentinel 2001;6(1):30. Copyright©2001, Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).