Bob Sears, MD, the Southern California pediatrician under investigation for alleged medical negligence and inappropriately writing medical exemptions for vaccines, had his medical license revoked by the Medical Board of California until he fulfills the requirements of a court-ordered probation period of 35 months.
The June 27 decision takes effect immediately and outlines stipulations that include additional education in areas where Sears’ practice is deficient and supervision by a physician-monitor with whom Sears has no prior relationship.
“Stiff sanction against Dr. Sears, especially for a first infraction in which no one was harmed, shows how seriously the Board saw his actions,” Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor of law at University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, told me.
Reiss specializes in law related to vaccination and was among those directly targeted by Sears during the hearings for California’s SB 277 law to eliminate non-medical vaccine exemptions. She has written a detailed blog post about the specifics of this case and the judgment. [I also personally know Reiss and we have independently given talks at the same professional event.]
“It is also, potentially, an indicator of the Board’s mood and a warning to other pediatricians willing to write baseless vaccine exemptions,” Reiss said.
Sears, son of the well-known William and Martha Sears who authored several parenting books, wrote his own book about vaccines, which contains misleading and inaccurate information but has been embraced by groups that advocate against requiring vaccines for school attendance.
Sears has also made a name for himself advocating alongside anti-vaccine organizations for looser vaccination requirement laws for public school. With the help of his book’s popularity and his family name, Sears has used his platform at meetings and on social media to promote vaccination practices that go against the evidence-based recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I have reached out to Sears for comment but have not yet heard a response. I will update this post if and when I receive one.
Vaccine education and advocacy organizations such as Every Child By Two/Vaccinate Your Family are welcoming the decision as a win for protecting children’s health.
“When physicians practice this type of substandard care, it places children lives at risk. Dr. Sears’ bias against vaccines flies in the face of overwhelming evidence of the safety and necessity of timely vaccinations,” Amy Pisani, MS, executive director of Every Child By Two told me.
“With notoriety comes great responsibility. Dr. Sears’ promotion of his ‘alternative vaccine schedule’ has helped perpetuate the myth that vaccines are not safe for children, which is shameful,” Pisani said. “This ruling should send a strong message to providers that the practice of medicine must be based on evidence, not anecdote, and signing vaccine waivers without medical necessity is not an acceptable practice.”
Pediatricians who publicly advocate for following the CDC recommended vaccination schedule feel similarly.
“I’m relieved that the board took the situation seriously. Unnecessary vaccine exemptions put lives at risk,” said Nathan Boonstra, MD, a general pediatrician at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. Boonstra frequently answers common questions about vaccines at his PedsGeekMD blog. “It’s pretty clear from the decision that Sears was not practicing to a standard of reasonable medical care.”
Sears must complete several requirements during his probation to reinstate his license. First, during each of his 3 years of probation, he must complete 40 hours of education specifically “aimed at correcting any areas of deficient practice or knowledge.”
These are in addition to the usual Continuing Medical Education credits required to renew his license, and he may be required to pass tests by the Medical Board to assess his knowledge after his courses.
Sears must also enroll in a professionalism course within the next 60 days and complete the classroom portion within the subsequent six months. Sears himself is responsible for paying for all these educational courses.
Finally, Sears may only continue to practice medicine during his probation under the supervision of a monitor who is a licensed physician in good standing and “preferably American Board of Medical Specialties certified.”
Sears must submit the names of possible monitors for approval by the Board, and he must pay all monitoring costs. The monitor will submit quarterly reports of Sears’ practice and performance to the Board.
He also has option to enroll instead in a “professional enhancement program” approved by the Board that also involves quarterly reviews. Regardless of which option he chooses, Sears is prohibited during his 3-year probation from supervising physician assistants and advanced practice nurses.
It will likely be difficult for Sears to choose a monitor who is sympathetic to his views about vaccines: According to the judgment, “A monitor shall have no prior or current business or personal relationship with [Sears], or other relationship that could reasonably be expected to compromise the ability of the monitor to render fair and unbiased reports to the Board, including but not limited to any form of bartering, shall be in [Sears’] field of practice, and must agree to serve as [Sears’] monitor.”
There are some additional stipulations in the decision related to not-practicing, traveling outside the state for longer than a month, practicing in other states and similar activities, but the bottom line is this: Sears cannot practice medicine without a monitor (or similar program) over the next three years, and he risks losing his license permanently if he fails to meet the requirements of his probation.
As I’ve written previously, the complaint that led to this judgment was about more than simply exempting a toddler from all vaccines, and the harms Sears has caused to public health through his misleading and often inaccurate medical information go far beyond this complaint. He was a particularly savage critic during the hearings for California’s SB 277 law to eliminate non-medical vaccine exemptions, even invoking Holocaust analogies—against parents who were Jewish and had lost relatives in the Holocaust.
His book is also responsible for promoting an “alternative vaccination schedule” recommending parents skip or delays vaccines that protect children from vaccine-preventable illnesses. One contributor to the Disneyland measles outbreak in 2015 included low immunization rates in Southern California, where Sears practices.
The complaint also outlined several disturbing accusations against Sears, including not testing a toddler for neurological problems after a head injury from a hammer, failing to investigate alleged life-threatening vaccine reactions and prescribing a non-evidence-based treatment for an infection.
Sears also recommended that the child never receive any vaccines because the child had supposedly experienced renal failure and a serious gastrointestinal problem preventing proper digestion following previous vaccination. Yet neither of those is an established vaccine reaction and if they had actually occurred, Sears would have been potentially medically negligent in not following up with those conditions.
Sears is a board-certified Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose journal, Pediatrics, previously published an evidence-based criticism of Sears’ vaccination schedule recommendations. I asked the AAP if they had a response to the judgment or any plans to review Sears’ status as a Fellow. An AAP representative said the organization does not comment on individual members.