Beyond the White Coat

How could this happen? Judge forces doctors to give ivermectin


The judge’s order was a major affront to many clinical ethicists. A county judge in Ohio ordered a hospital to give ivermectin to a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator. This order occurred against the advice and judgment of the local physicians. It occurred in spite of the hospital’s lawyers fighting the order. How could such a situation occur?

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

This column is not the appropriate forum to debate the use of ivermectin. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drug for treating COVID-19. Indeed, the FDA has specifically recommended against its use.1 So has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2 Poison control centers report a large uptick in exposures this summer because of self-medication, sometimes from veterinary sources.3

Fortunately for this case, the judge who overruled the order, Judge Michael A. Oster, wrote in his decision a summary of facts presented by both sides. The topic here is how a judge could order a medical institution and its staff to provide care against medical judgment. A key tenet of clinical ethics consultation is that the consultant needs to do their own investigation. Most veteran consultants have a litany of anecdotes wherein the initial story changed markedly as new facts were uncovered. The more outrageous the initial story, the more likely a major distortion is found. Therefore, most clinical ethics consultants are reluctant to discuss case studies based solely on publicly available information. Often, it is nearly impossible to obtain further information. One side of the story may be gagged by privacy laws. However, cases must sometimes be discussed based on the limited information available because, without that discussion, egregious violations of medical ethics would not be brought to light.

Fortunately for this case, Judge Osler’s decision contains a summary of facts presented by both sides. In August 2021, a 51-year-old patient with severe COVID-19 is in an Ohio intensive care unit on a ventilator. His wife seeks and obtains a prescription for ivermectin from a physician who has an Ohio state medical license but lives elsewhere, has no clinical privileges at the involved hospital, and has never examined the patient. The wife, as a surrogate decision maker, demands her husband receive the medication. The medical staff involved do not consider it a valid treatment. The wife seeks an injunction. A county judge orders the hospital to administer a specified dose of ivermectin daily for 21 days.4 That judge further grants an emergency preliminary injunction for 14 days that orders administration of the medication while legal appeals are made. Two weeks later, a second county judge hearing the case rules that the wife has not presented convincing evidence that she is likely to ultimately win the case on the merits.5 Therefore, the second judge reverses the preliminary injunction. The hospital need not continue to give the medication while further legal proceedings take place.

Cases like this are uncommon. Judges generally defer the authority for medical decisions to physicians. Various attitudes combine to make such an event happen. The judge may view the hospital as a local monopoly of health care and the patient may be too unstable to transport elsewhere. A judge in that situation, combined with a “the consumer is always right” mentality, and a sympathetic plaintiff, may seek to make miracles happen.

Judges overriding science are more likely to manifest when they see the science as ambiguous. Scientists have lost some of the gravitas they had when men walked on the moon. The spectacular success of the mRNA vaccines has surprisingly not reversed that loss. Science has been tainted by mercenary scientists, biased researchers seeking publications, and the large volume of published medical research that is false.

But there is more going on here. In the United States there has been a significant rebellion against any form of expertise and any form of authority. The echo chambers of misinformation on social media have led to polarization, conspiracy theories, and loyalty to political tribe rather than truth; hence the battle over masks and vaccines. This breakdown in authority is accompanied by losses in virtues such as civic duty and loving one’s neighbor. This is a failure of modern moral institutions. When major medical journals print opinion pieces portraying physicians as interchangeable automatons,6 it should not be surprising to see judges tempted by similar imagery.

One part of the solution is accountability in peer review. With 30,000 county judges scattered in 50 states, there will always be a few rogue and maverick attitudes among judges. The judiciary has a means of reassigning rebels to less impactful tasks. Similarly, if the physician who counseled the wife to use ivermectin had privileges at the admitting hospital, then peer review and credential committees could discipline behaviors that were too far outside accepted norms. Even when a consensus on best practice is hard to establish, damage can be mitigated by creating consequences for promoting aberrant care.

Dr. Powell is a retired pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at


1. “Why you should not use ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19,” FDA Consumer Updates, Sept. 3, 2021.

2. “Rapid increase in ivermectin prescriptions and reports of severe illness associated with use of products containing ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19,” CDC Health Advisory, Aug. 26, 2021.

3. National Poison Data System Bulletin: COVID-19 (Ivermectin), American Association of Poison Control Centers, 2021.

4. Smith v West Chester Hosptial, LLC, DBA West Chester Hospital, Butler County Clerk of Courts, Aug. 23, 2021.

5. Smith v West Chester Hosptial, LLC, Decision denying plaintiff’s action for a preliminary injunction, Butler County Clerk of Courts, Sept. 6, 2021.

6. “Conscientious objection in medicine,” BMJ 2006 Feb 2. doi: 10.1136/bmj.332.7536.294.

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