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Med Boards: Docs Who Spread Misinformation Put License at Risk

Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

Three primary care boards issued a joint statement today backing the Federation of State Medical Boards’ recent statement saying that if physicians spread misinformation about COVID-19, their medical license could be suspended or revoked.

Leaders of the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM), the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), and the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) said they support FSMB’s position.

“We also want all physicians certified by our Boards to know that such unethical or unprofessional conduct may prompt their respective Board to take action that could put their certification at risk,” today’s statement read. 

“Expertise matters, and board-certified physicians have demonstrated that they have stayed current in their field. Spreading misinformation or falsehoods to the public during a time of a public health emergency goes against everything our Boards and our community of board-certified physicians stand for,” the leaders write.

“The evidence that we have safe, effective, and widely available vaccines against COVID-19 is overwhelming. We are particularly concerned about physicians who use their authority to denigrate vaccination at a time when vaccines continue to demonstrate excellent effectiveness against severe illness, hospitalization, and death.”

Small Number Spread False Information

However, a small number of doctors continue to spread misinformation against the vaccines and communicate other false information surrounding COVID-19.

Some of the misinformation spreaders have had ultra-viral reach.

Among them is Daniel Stock, MD, a family physician in Indiana who has come out against COVID-19 vaccines. At a recent meeting of the Mt. Vernon Community School board in Indiana, he gave a speech urging the board to ignore the prevailing recommendations around COVID-19, such as test-and-trace measures.

Forbes reported last month that versions of the video of Stock’s speech on Facebook “have collected a total of 90 million engagements — a metric encompassing things such as comments, likes and shares — according to data collected by Media Matters for America, a liberal tech-watchdog group.”

Medscape Medical News last month published a story asking whether physicians who spread such information should lose their license and the question drew rapid-fire comments.

Commenters who argued with potential disciplinary actions raised questions about where the line will be drawn between misinformation and deeply held beliefs in terms of care.

Several comments centered on ivermectin, which is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19 but is enthusiastically supported as a COVID-19 treatment by a group of physicians called the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, whose website includes requests for donations.

Some cited free speech protections.

“Not Consistent With Standards”

As for ivermectin, David G. Nichols, MD, president and CEO of the American Board of Pediatrics, gave Medscape Medical News an example: “Spreading the notion that one would not need to get vaccinated because if you get sick you could take ivermectin is a very dangerous statement. That is not consistent with the standards of professionalism required for certification or licensure.”

Ivermectin, he noted, is not an approved treatment for COVID-19.

“To say that it is or has any benefit is a false statement. We’re not willing to allow individuals who make false statements to devalue the terrific work of tens of thousands of physicians across the United States doing work under very difficult circumstances,” Nichols said.

He continued, “To suggest treatments that are known not to be effective in exchange for treatment that is known to be effective is dangerous — and ivermectin falls under that category.”

Asked whether such suggestions could result in suspension or revocation of a physician’s license, Nichols said, “It’s the kind of thing that would certainly trigger a review.”

He said the standard for separating misinformation from personal beliefs is based on whether there is scientific evidence to support the belief.

The boards are not, with this statement, attempting to referee legitimate scientific debate, he said.

The misinformation the boards are referring to, Nichols said, is “where the evidence is 100% on one side and 0 on another. And the zero is not only that the opinions or beliefs are unsupported or unsubstantiated, they are indeed harmful if followed. That’s the distinction we’re trying to make here.”

As for free speech arguments, he said, “Free speech is a constitutional right. You can say whatever you want. The issue here is you do not have the right to expect continued professional sanction of a board certificate if you are lying to the public.”

Today’s board statement also said, “We all look to board-certified physicians to provide outstanding care and guidance; providing misinformation about a lethal disease is unethical, unprofessional and dangerous. In times of medical emergency, the community of expert physicians committed to science and evidence collectively shares a responsibility for giving the public the most accurate and timely health information available, so they can make decisions that work best for themselves and their families.”

In addition to Nichols, the statement was signed by Warren Newton, MD, MPH, president and CEO of the American Board of Family Medicine and Richard J. Baron, MD, president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News, and Nurse.com, and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick

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