Sidney Wolfe: The Doctors’ Doctor for Prevention and Accountability
With the passing of Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe at the age of 86, our country has lost one of the greatest “extra-ordinary” physicians of the past half century. There have been physicians who developed great life-saving vaccines and medications (e.g., smallpox, polio, HIV/AIDS). But because of Sid’s endurance and the range of his work as director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group (HRG), he pioneered unprecedented means and measures for saving lives and preventing injuries and trauma.
Pouring out of this small HRG office – with only ten to twelve staff – were petitions to the FDA, lawsuits, reports, books, monthly newsletters, and Congressional testimonies. Sid’s medical school lectures and presentations at conferences, which informed generations of medical professionals and consumers, were all based on consistent scientific accuracy and motivated by an incorruptible moral compass.
His moral compass – directed toward advancing health and safety – provided the “emotional intelligence” that infused a sense of daily urgency to HRG’s mass of evidence.
Sid developed several distinct but related roles to becoming what I call the Doctors’ Doctor. He mobilized public opinion and recruited allies to stress the prevention of death, injury, and disease as the highest calling of the medical profession. Prevention is not profitable compared to the fees generated for diagnosis and treatment. That is why he refused to let market determinants become an excuse for physicians and hospitals to escape ethical norms.
Prevention for Sid meant forcing the FDA to take off the market over two dozen dangerous or ineffective drugs, in addition to several harmful medical devices. Prevention meant watchdogging the FDA to enforce drug safety and efficacy laws and stop the “pay or die” drug companies from continuing to sell fatality-producing drugs like Pfizer’s Vioxx. It took thousands of fatalities and many tort lawsuits before that killer was banned. Always alert, Sid early on blew the whistle on the Opioid company’s aggressive and deceptive advertising inducing fatal overdoses to many tens of thousands of Americans annually.
The second pathway that Sid plowed deeply was accountability for the drug companies and the medical societies, starting with the American Medical Association (AMA), the State Departments of Public Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and, of course, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To say he and HRG were watchdogs is to understate. They were guard dogs and don’t think the regulators and bureaucrats in these organizations weren’t looking over their shoulders in making decisions wondering if and when HRG would pounce.
The third focus of Sid’s work was to petition for effective regulation, such as banning dangerous drugs, or demanding more information from the regulated industries to be made public, or insisting on warning labels such as those on aspirin bottles regarding a potentially fatal condition if young children are given this pain-relief medicine for flu or chickenpox. Result – physicians did their job and child fatalities plummeted.
An FDA official, Robert Young, told the Washington Post in 1985: “When [Health Research Group] files a petition, it’s looked at very carefully.”
Sid Wolfe was a master communicator which helped him get network news coverage often and draw large ratings for his many presentations on the Phil Donahue Show with its ten million viewers. He was the “go-to” person for reporters covering major revelations of corporate greed and conflicts of interest in the medical industrial complex.
He was a fierce advocate of single-payer or full Medicare for all, without the present loopholes and corporatist takeovers, such as Medicare (Dis)advantage. It was fun watching Sid debate and demolish so precisely corporate spokespeople bold enough to take him on.
In his best, deliberately inexpensive, best-selling book “Worst Pills, Best Pills: A Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness,” Sid reached millions of people with specific, usable information about many of the prescription and over-the-counter drugs. People can look up drugs they are prescribed or taking by brand and generic names. The drugs are labeled “Do Not Use,” “Do Not Use Until Five Years After Release,” “Last Choice Drug,” and “Limited Use.”
Each time a new edition of the book was published, Phil Donahue would invite Sid to be a guest. The studio and broadcast audiences were intently focused on Phil’s questions and Sid’s advice because the information presented was so personally important. The medicines were all approved by the FDA but some had bad side effects, such as gastrointestinal bleeding or dizziness, while others for the same ailment would not. Thus, the title “Worst Pills, Best Pills.” Sid and HRG also developed an updated database for such medicines so that subscribers (only $15 a year, go to worstpills.org) could access 24/7 this possibly critical knowledge. That is just one of Sid’s many enduring legacies!
Sid had another side to him known mostly only to some thousands of people. Whether known or not known, they or their relatives would call Sid, when injured or sick, for preliminary advice or referral to a competent internist or specialist. All free of course. Sprain your ankle? “Call Sid.” A respiratory ailment getting worse? “Call Sid.” He would be careful not to cross the line beyond what he was told and what he could suggest. Beyond that, you could be assured that any referral by Sid would be to someone reliably skilled and attentive.
Sid also demonstrated that public health advocacy could take from 50 to 60 hours a week but still allow for a balanced life. He was the father of four daughters, took annual vacations with his wife Suzanne, participated in a local book club, and played the piano beautifully. Mozart was his hero. As winner of the MacArthur “genius” award, he enjoyed the annual meetings with the other MacArthur awardees.
He counted close allies as part of his family for whom he would cook dinners. Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, spoke for many when he described Sid as a “towering public health leader…and a great friend.”
If meaning in Life is to be found in widening the space for justice between the horror of it all and the trivia of it all, Dr. Sidney Wolfe showed how that could be achieved. Now he belongs to the ages.