Medical boards are still struggling to discipline doctors who spread COVID-19 myths

November 11, 2021, 8:53 PM UTC

Hi readers,

The controversy surrounding sports superstar Aaron Rodgers is a sobering reminder of how entrenched COVID-19 misinformation is in American society. When the Green Bay Packers quarterback tested positive for COVID-19 and revealed that he was unvaccinated (which is against NFL rules), he justified his decision not to get vaccinated by citing a litany of widely debunked COVID-19 vaccine myths, to the horror of scientists aware of the athlete’s immense popularity and reach. Other celebrities who have expressed vaccine skepticism, like the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving and the actor Matthew McConaughey, have drawn sharp criticism for spreading misinformation on their enormous platforms as well.

But the scientific community has also denounced another subset of influential Americans: physicians who share misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Some, like a group that calls themselves America’s Frontline Doctors, even help people get prescriptions of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, neither of which are approved for treating COVID-19 (and are very lucrative for the prescribers). These doctors—a handful of whom have been nicknamed “the Disinformation Dozen”—not only foster the spread of these myths and endanger their patients but also validate misinformation and damage trust in the medical field. At a time when we need to overcome vaccine hesitancy to increase the vaccination rate, a loss of trust in medicine is something we can’t afford. A “trust tracker” from the COVID States Project, a multidisciplinary research effort on pandemic attitudes and behavior, shows that trust in doctors and scientists has declined since April 2020, with Republicans expressing more mistrust than Democrats.

In recent months, a number of medical organizations have called on medical boards to discipline doctors who spread information. The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), an umbrella organization, stated in July that doctors who do so risk “suspension or revocation of their medical license.” In September, the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine, and the American Board of Pediatrics supported that policy in a joint statement, which was followed shortly by another from the Physicians for Human Rights.

But putting this policy into practice has been a challenge, in part because the decision to penalize doctors is in the hands of state medical boards. In September, an NPR investigation found that 15 of 16 doctors known to spread misinformation online were still in good standing with their medical boards. CNN reported in October that only the state medical boards of Rhode Island and Oregon said they had disciplined doctors for violating COVID-19 policies. 

FSMB spokesperson Joe Knickrehm explained in a September interview that state boards rely on complaints filed by the public to track physicians who spread misinformation, and they simply don’t have the resources to monitor every doctor under their purview. Many state boards, he added, have reported more complaints than usual about doctors who peddle coronavirus myths. But as USA Today reported in September, state boards have disciplined fewer doctors in general during the pandemic.

There are legal challenges to enforcing this policy, too. In some states, politicians have tried to block policies that would penalize physicians for spreading misinformation. Last month, after Tennessee’s state medical board announced it would adopt such a policy, Republican lawmakers introduced two bills that would essentially protect physicians from being disciplined on the basis of their opinions. Also last month, Nebraska’s attorney general said he wouldn’t penalize doctors for prescribing ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine.

When doctors are permitted to spread misinformation, ultimately the public bears the downstream consequences, either because they believe the wrong thing or they don’t know what to believe. Neither option promotes vaccination or safe COVID-19 behaviors like masking or distancing, which are known to protect people from getting sick. The results from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey reflects the uncertainty that many Americans still harbor about COVID-19 and the vaccines due to misinformation. Faced with eight false statements (such as “the vaccines contain a microchip” or “ivermectin is a safe and effective treatment”), 78% of people polled either believed or weren’t sure about at least one of them. The most widely believed falsehood (38% of people polled) claimed the government is exaggerating the number of deaths from COVID-19.

Efforts are still underway to discipline doctors for spreading Covid myths: A group called No License for Disinformation, made up of doctors and other advocates, is calling on the public to file complaints against physicians who spread falsehoods about COVID-19; a useful guide for doing so can be found here. The NFL, meanwhile, has fined both Rodgers and the Packers for not following the league’s COVID-19 protocols, sending a clear message that behaviors that compromise the safety of others won’t be tolerated.

Thanks for reading, and please reach out if you have any questions or comments—I’d love to hear from you.

Stay safe out there,




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