A new effort at Massachusetts General Hospital aims to treat gun violence as a public health problem.
“To depoliticize this is the most important thing for us — to identify a place where we can actually make an impact, like we’ve done for smoking, [and] like we’ve done for HIV,” said Dr. Peter Masiakos, co-founder of the new Center for Gun Violence Prevention, speaking on Greater Boston on Thursday.
Co-founder Dr. Chana Sacks detailed the many unanswered questions about gun violence that she says require more peer-reviewed medical research.
“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] isn’t tracking non-fatal injuries, for example,” she said. “We have good data … on the number of gun deaths every year … But in terms of the number of people who are shot and injured and are now living in our communities and are our lifelong patients, we have no national tracking in any organized way of who’s being injured.”
That problem, Sacks added, means physicians do not have comprehensive information about the best way to care for patients who must transition back to normal life after the traumatic experience of being shot — and especially how to help prevent the cycle of retaliatory violence.
The CDC’s measure of fatal gun deaths reveals that 100 people are killed by guns in the United States every day, but that is about the extent of its data collection activities. The agency is effectively banned from using any of its funding toward gun violence research. Similarly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also prevented from releasing data it collects for its national database of guns used in crime.
The new center at Massachusetts General Hospital adds to a growing list of independent efforts that are trying to fill that informational void.
Both doctors also spoke about their personal connections to gun violence, which have inspired them to focus on the issue.
Sacks said that her cousin’s son was killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012.
“It was some of the worst pain that I’d ever seen up front,” she said.
But, she also witnessed her cousin’s inspiring resolve in the face of tragedy.
“If he could be part of making sure that no other family had to go through what he was enduring every single day … he was going to do that, and I’m following his lead,” she said.
Masiakos said he trained at Boston City Hospital in the 1990s, which was the peak of gun violence in the city. (That hospital merged with another hospital in 1996 to become Boston Medical Center.)
“The worst part of my job was walking to the room where I told the parents of the dead children that their child died, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said.
Both physicians say they welcome ongoing debate from their peers within the medical field about how best to tackle the problem. In the end, they say, it’s all about what’s best for patients, their families, and communities as a whole — particularly those that have borne the brunt of gun violence and the ripple effect of trauma it can cause.
“We’re not anti-guns. We’re anti-bullet holes in our patients,” said Sacks. “Every health care professional could get behind that mission.”