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Home » Bob Sears gets third probation for fake medical exemption

Bob Sears gets third probation for fake medical exemption

This article, about Dr. Bob Sears’ third probation, was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively about vaccination’s social and legal policies in law journals. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable diseases. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

On August 30, 2022, the Medical Board of California adopted as its decision a settlement agreement with Dr. Robert Sears (Dr. Bob Sears) under which he would be under probation until June 2023 and required to undergo a couple of medical courses. The grounds, as set out in the accusation attached to the settlement, were writing a fake medical exemption for a girl of 13. 

This seems like a very, very light penalty for someone for whom this is the third case in a row of giving a baseless medical exemption. I am not sure if the Board was concerned that it may not be able to fully prove the allegation or is especially solicitous to Dr. Bob Sears (and why), or whether something else was going on. 

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Dr. Bob Sears’ background

Dr. Bob Sears got involved in vaccines with his Vaccines Book, which was attractive to parents seeking to vaccinate their children but affected by anti-vaccine efforts to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt enough to seek an alternative schedule. As pointed out by experts, Dr. Bob Sears’ alternative schedule has no science behind it and is based on buying into certain anti-vaccine myths, like the incorrect claim that children receive too much aluminum with their vaccine schedule. One observer pointed out that Dr. Sears was “Cashing in on Fears,” reinforcing and deepening parents’ fears of vaccines, mostly fear based on misinformation.

Over time, Dr. Sears seems to buy more and more into anti-vaccine claims. He did participate in anti-vaccine conferences and wrote for anti-vaccine blogs from early on. But he seemed to be more and more openly aligned with anti-vaccine efforts. For example, during the measles outbreak in 2014 – before the Disneyland outbreak – Dr. Sears downplayed the pandemic and openly discouraged patients from getting MMR – during an outbreak in his own Orange county. He doubled down on this during the Disneyland outbreak.    

During the political process leading up to SB277, California’s law removing the non-medical exemption to school vaccine mandates, Dr. Bob Sears openly aligned with the opposition to the law. That is unsurprising in a doctor whose practice openly caters to those seeking alternative vaccine schedules (and who, as already mentioned, has made anti-vaccine-like statements before), but in doing so he openly participated in and worked with anti-vaccine group’s efforts, and has made anti-vaccine statements

Shortly after the passage of the act, Dr. Sears engaged in the widespread sale of medical exemptions, at least some of which – as set out by the board’s multiple cases – were clearly unjustified. 

In fact, in a Facebook post put up shortly after the passage of the law, Dr. Sears  gave the following reasons people may use to get a medical exemption:

A child with a severe vaccine reaction already.

Siblings of a child who had a severe reaction. 

Children of a parent who had a severe reaction. 

More distant relatives with a severe reaction. Reactions that occur in grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins are less of a concern as the genetic risks are not as closely shared. However, parents can and should discuss this with their physician. 

Current severe medical conditions or chronic conditions. Children with any chronic medical condition or temporary moderate to severe condition can discuss with a doctor whether or not that condition warrants temporary or permanent exemption. 

Family history of severe medical conditions. There is a growing body of research (see Resources, page 000) which is finding a small link between vaccination and increased risk of autoimmune disease. Families with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, and other autoimmune conditions can discuss exemptions. 

Families with neurodevelopmental or psychiatric conditions can also discuss this with their doctor. The greater the number of familial diseases, and the closer in the family they occur to the child in question, the more likely is the need to consider exemption. 

Autism in the family. Despite the lack of published mainstream evidence of a connection between vaccines and autism, many families will consider seeking exemptions for a child with autism and the rest of their children. Autism in more distant relatives would be less of a concern for a baby but can be considered. 

Other learning and behavioral disorders in the family. Disorders that are less severe than autism, such as ADHD, ODD, and others, are less of a concern but warrant consideration by families and their doctors. 

Allergies in the family. This is perhaps one of the most common disorders for which families may try to get a medical exemption. If a family’s challenges are significant, such as multiple close family members with asthma, eczema, and life-threatening food allergies, consideration for exemption could be valid. Yet, some may go a little overboard, such as having a second cousin with asthma, or having a child who is “sensitive” to sugar.

Except for a child with a history of adverse reactions, these are not, generally, reasons to exempt a child from vaccines. Generally, with very few exceptions, an adverse event in a relative is not a contraindication for a vaccine.  Even more glaringly, a relative with conditions that vaccines do not cause – like autism or food allergies – is certainly not such a reason. And yet, Dr. Sears includes these as examples. He does language aimed at covering the fact that these reasons are illegitimate, by saying:

It is not my intention to claim that the above scenarios all deserve a medical exemption from vaccines. I simply list the most common reasons that patients have discussed with me and opinions that various colleagues have shared with me. This issue has not yet been sorted out by research.

And yet, he is clearly listing these things as grounds for “legitimate” medical exemptions – his words – which they are not. 

crop unrecognizable male doctor with stethoscope
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Medical Board of California discipline

The first case Dr. Sears was disciplined for was not related to school exemptions or SB277. In 2016, a complaint was brought against him for giving a medical exemption from vaccines to a child based on reasons that were not reflected in the child’s records, and for not following through when the child was hit by a hammer on the head by his father.

In June 2018 he agreed to a stipulation imposing probation and a list of conditions, including taking courses, being monitored, and not supervising others. At the time, for a first offense involving one patient who was not directly harmed, I thought this was a serious penalty and suggested seriousness on the part of the board. I think even the scientist-physician Orac agreed that this was a non-trivial sanction, at the time. 

But in September 2019, another complaint was brought against Dr. Sears. The original complaint covered two children, one of whom had chronic psoriasis, and whose dad also had psoriasis.

In a detailed post, Pediatrician Vince Iannelli explained the issues with this. The final complaint, however, included other cases. Patient three is a five-year-old girl who was only seen to be given an exemption. Her exemption was based on “a second cousin having had a severe vaccine reaction with developmental regression and eventual diagnosis of autism.” Even if this was, in fact, a vaccine reaction – and it’s easy to suspect that this was a child with autism blamed on vaccines – a second cousin with this issue would not qualify the child for an exemption under CDC’s criteria.  The complaint mentioned that “patient family history also included mention of autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, including seizure disorder (Mom), and 10 relatives with neurodevelopmental disorders including autism, ADHD/ADD and dyslexia (Dad) and OCD (Mom).”

None of these would be grounds for a medical exemption. But Dr. Sears gave her one.

Patient 4, a twelve-year-old, was also seen by Dr. Sears only to get a medical exemption, based on the claim after her two-months DTaP she had an “encephalitis-like reaction,” and since then received all her vaccines except pertussis. This may have been a legitimate exemption for the pertussis vaccine, but that’s not what she received. Based on a family history of autoimmune and other disorders, she was given a medical exemption for all vaccines. 

Dr. Sears was also accused of not properly keeping medical records for the first two kids and a fifth kid who came in for a non-vaccine, knee-related problem. 

On July 2020, the Board and Dr. Sears signed a settlement about these cases. In spite of the fact that there are at least four cases here of exemptions problematic on their face, the Board’s only sanction was to increase the probation period for two more years, keeping the monitoring and not adding cases.  

It is true that these cases preceded the previous disciplinary decision, which came down in 2018. But it’s Dr. Sears’ second disciplinary action, and it has at least four really problematic vaccine exemptions. This seems like a very light sanction in the circumstances, and Dr. Sears clearly agrees, describing the settlement in positive terms (while hinting at a conspiracy against him, and a decision already made by the board). 

And the case that’s the basis of the August 30, 2022 decision is after the initial discipline. 

On October 12, 2015, Dr. Sears saw “Patient A”, a ten-year-old girl, and “performed a general physical and then issued a medical exemption from vaccination to patient A for ‘the rest of childhood due to a family history of multiple autoimmune disorders and a severe vaccine reaction.’” As mentioned, a family history of autoimmune disorders would not justify an exemption; a severe vaccine reaction would, but the language suggests to me the reaction is in the ”family history”, not by the child, and the next paragraph confirms that.

In paragraph 2, the complaint notes that “about August 20, 2018, Respondent [Dr. Sears] conducted a telephone appointment with Patient A’s parents. Patient’s A parents were seeking another exemption letter from Respondent. According to the medical records of the telephone appointment, the Respondent documented Patient A had no allergies; no pertinent past medical history; a family history of several autoimmune disorders; several neurologic disorders; and an aunt, uncle, and brother with illnesses diagnosed from various vaccines. The intake form documents no past vaccines and no past vaccine reactions for Patient A.” 

This paragraph tells us that Patient A is an unvaccinated 10-year-old who never had any vaccine reaction (from the vaccines she did not get). Dr. Sears then exempted her from vaccines required for school for a family history of adverse reactions to vaccines and autoimmune and other disorders. Which, again, are not a contraindication. In other words, he again gave a child a medical exemption – twice – with no merit.

This echoes what he was disciplined for twice already, and is at least after the first order disciplining him when he knows he’s on probation. In fact, the complaint asked to revoke Dr. Sears’ license.

But that was not the decision. In fact, his period of probation was not even lengthened – the new probation is running along the previous (so the monitoring continues), and all that’s added is a requirement of an educational course, a record-keeping course, and paying $8,839 for the board’s costs. This is barely a slap on the wrist. 

As a reminder, in other cases against doctors who wrote medical exemptions, the board issued a range of sanctions and did revoke the licenses of at least two – Dr. Kenneth Stoller and Dr. Kelly Sutton  – for fake exemptions. Other doctors, though, got lesser penalties, including probation. 

Dr. Sears is before the board for the third time for the same issue. Why did they not impose a more serious penalty? 

The real answer is that I do not know, but here is a range of what I think are plausible options.

  1. Because SB276, a law for policing medical exemptions, was passed and there is now monitoring of medical exemptions, the Board thinks there is no need for future deterrence, and the problem is resolved.  It is focusing on deterrence instead of reacting to past wrongdoing.
  2. Refocusing on, for example, COVID-19 misinformation after the passage of AB2098, the board wanted to clear away old and less pressing cases and prioritize other issues, and because of the first point, this seemed less pressing. 
  3. There may be evidentiary issues with the new case that are not apparent.
  4. Because the new complaint still predates the second discipline, the board was not sure a harsh penalty for bad vaccine exemptions is justified.
  5. Because Dr. Sears is well connected to legitimate California doctors, visible, and privileged, the board hesitated to proceed severely against him. 

At any rate, to me, as a vaccine advocate, this result is jarring, because it seems to trivialize dishonesty in support of not protecting children from dangerous, potentially fatal diseases.  Dr. Sears has to know this was not a valid reason to exempt the child. He’s still willing to do it (at least he saw her once). If he is willing to be dishonest to assist parents in the anti-vaccine cause, what else is he doing as a doctor? 

Note that this is not speech. This is the action — Dr. Sears exempted the child. The board could have acted as it did against Drs. Stoller and Sutton, and chose not to.

This leaves a bad taste. 

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

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