Discipline demanded for disinformation doctors

Doctors who repeatedly spread misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines should face disciplinary review and actions, including the revocation of their licenses, said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

Bogus information on the Internet about the inoculated is spurring hesitancy among people all over the world, threatening disastrous public health effects

PHR is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations.

A very small but vocal number of health professionals have taken to airwaves and social media to sow doubt and spread lies about COVID-19 and the safety of vaccines, with profound consequences for public health in the midst of the deadly global pandemic.

In response to the mounting crisis of misinformation fueled by health professionals, PHR is calling on the U.S. Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) to work with its state medical board members to immediately investigate and remove the licenses of physicians who propagate misinformation or disinformation.

PHR has for decades documented and called attention to medical professionals who participate in human rights abuses, supporting efforts to hold them accountable when they violate their professional oaths.

“A foundational principle of medicine is ‘do no harm.’ By spreading misinformation and disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, some health professionals are contributing to profound harms, preventable death and illness, and distrust of science,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “We face the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a pandemic of misinformation. Some of the most potent and damaging lies during this crisis have been created or propagated by medical professionals –  including doctors and nurses – who should act as voices of facts, evidence, compassion, and ethics. Those who profit from or knowingly spread these toxic narratives and conspiracy theories have violated the Hippocratic Oath and are no longer qualified for the profession. Particularly during a pandemic, disinformation is deadly.

“We applaud the Federation of State Medical Boards for its stance that physicians who create or spread vaccine misinformation and disinformation risk license suspension and revocation. We call on the FSMB to now implement this principle and work expeditiously with its state boards to investigate such clinicians and act appropriately on the findings of the inquiries, including the revocations of licenses, when warranted.”

In July 2021, the FSMB issued the following statement:

“Physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license. Due to their specialized knowledge and training, licensed physicians possess a high degree of public trust and therefore have a powerful platform in society, whether they recognize it or not. They also have an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health. Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”

“Whether on TV or TikTok, viral misinformation and disinformation pushed by medical professionals can reach and influence countless susceptible individuals, at a crisis moment when trust in science is needed more than ever,” said Dr. Heisler. “While much responsibility no doubt lies with technology companies and regulators, it is also imperative that the medical profession do everything it can to stem the tide of disinformation and hold participating clinicians accountable. Reducing false information and sanctioning the doctors who spread it will save lives. State medical boards must step up and act now.”

Health-related disinformation is not a new phenomenon, but during the COVID-19 pandemic its amplification via social media has broadened its reach and helped fuel distrust in vaccines and other proven public health measures

Disinformation about the COVID-19 virus, approved vaccines, and proposed treatments have a demonstrably harmful impact on patient safety and public health, and hinder physicians’ ability to help mitigate the spread of the virus. When this disinformation is spread by licensed physicians, it raises significant challenges for state medical boards as they carry out their missions to protect patients.

The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners adopted a policy during its September meeting to punish physicians who generate false information concerning the COVID-19 vaccination during its meeting held on Sept. 21.

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