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Doctoring while legislating via Zoom is double-dereliction of duty | COMMENTARY

Del. Terri Hill of Howard County, a plastic surgeon, apparently appearing during a committee hearing from an operating room. This is a frame grab made from the March 12 meeting of the House Health and Government Operations committee. (File/Baltimore Sun).
Del. Terri Hill of Howard County, a plastic surgeon, apparently appearing during a committee hearing from an operating room. This is a frame grab made from the March 12 meeting of the House Health and Government Operations committee. (File/Baltimore Sun). (handout)

When Scott Green, a California plastic surgeon standing in an operating room in full scrubs appeared via Zoom at a court hearing to contest a traffic violation last month, the presiding official was having none of it. “I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Sacramento Superior Court Commissioner Gary Link responded, noting the presence of a patient lying unconscious on a nearby table. The court date was moved, and the defendant received national attention for all the wrong reasons, even as Dr. Green insisted his patient was in no jeopardy. The obvious lesson: Juggling a livestream with surgery is a terrible look.

Apparently, not everyone saw it that way.

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This week, complaints were filed against Dr. Terri Hill, a Maryland plastic surgeon serving in the House of Delegates, for strikingly similar behavior. They were made not only with the General Assembly’s ethics committee but with the Maryland Board of Physicians. The allegation is that she twice joined legislative meetings by video from the operating room, including, most recently, a March 12 meeting of the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee. And, like Dr. Green in California, Dr. Hill saw nothing wrong with her behavior.

““I’m a little surprised that this is becoming a big deal. because there are no privacy issues,” Delegate Hill, a two-term Democrat representing portions of Howard and Baltimore County, told The Sun’s Pamela Wood. “There are no attention-to-duty issues and there’s no dereliction-of-duty issues. So, the only issue is people’s perception of what could or could not or must or must not have been going on.”

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Here’s another possibility: It’s grossly unprofessional to shortchange one of the most fundamental responsibilities of a state lawmaker: full participation in legislative hearings. And we’re guessing a lot of Dr. Hill’s fellow physicians would see the distraction of a livestream hearing as not exactly helpful to a good surgical outcome, either.

Don’t take our word for it. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones has already reportedly instructed Dr. Hill that this is inappropriate behavior. Although to be fair, it’s probably not the only time a member of the Maryland General Assembly has made a bad choice about livestreaming. Complaints about delegates and senators who attempt to engage in legislative activities while driving their cars have apparently been the bane of committee staff existence this legislative session. Perhaps we need to start running public service announcements on television and radio: “See an elected official Zooming while doing something else that should require their full attention (like surgery or driving down Interstate 97)? Call the General Assembly at 800-492-7122″).

Granted, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed work-life balance for a lot of people. Who hasn’t watched a colleague’s video feed go dark, while some livestream participant looked after their kids, fed the family dog or folded laundry? It happens. And we’re guessing the cellphones that lawmakers can often be seen staring at during in-person hearings pre-COVID weren’t always informing them about matters at hand. A bit of juggling is to be expected.

But let’s make something completely clear: When individuals run to be in the state legislature, they are not signing up to be gig workers who set their own schedules; they are expected to give the, albeit part-time, job their full attention, particularly during the 90-day session. In the days before Zoom, this was a given, as those who failed to show up for legislative hearings created an abysmal attendance and/or voting record for all to see. The ability to conduct hearings or voting sessions by computer should not be an invitation to stretch the boundaries. And that’s especially true of surgeons who, even in cases of a minor dermabrasion or routine lipoplasty, have life and death matters in their hands.

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And, by the way, perceptions matter. Those who think otherwise aren’t paying attention to the current struggle to get reluctant Americans to voluntarily sign up for coronavirus vaccinations. Every time a doctor, nurse or public health official shows himself or herself to be something less than diligent or attentive, the credibility of their profession is diminished. That goes for politics, too. Although the starting point for respect of that career field is, admittedly, rather low, the public’s overall faith in state government need not be tossed so cavalierly to the floor.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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