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Physicians Face Disciplinary Action for Coronavirus Vaccine Misinformation

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   September 17, 2021

Spreading coronavirus misinformation could cost physicians their medical licenses and medical board certifications.

The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and several medical certification organizations are calling for disciplinary action against physicians who spread misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.

The spreading of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines is widely viewed as playing a role in vaccination hesitancy across the country. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician in Cape Coral, Florida, is one of the most influential spreaders of coronavirus vaccine misinformation in the country, according to The New York Times.

The FSMB, which represents medical licensing boards across the country, recently released a statement that seeks to discourage coronavirus vaccines misinformation by physicians.

"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," the statement says.

On Sept. 9, the leaders of the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine, and American Board of Pediatrics issued a joint statement on the dissemination of misinformation about COVID-19 by board certified physicians.

"We at the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM), the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), and the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) 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," the joint statement says.

Taking a stand against misinformation

Physicians who engage in coronavirus vaccine misinformation are violating hallowed obligations, Richard Baron, MD, president and CEO of the ABIM, told HealthLeaders.

"Physicians have a professional and ethical obligation to advise patients on the current state of scientific knowledge and in their field. That is what patients are relying on physicians to do. Physicians occupy a position of considerable authority and considerable trust—there are a lot of things that you get to do if you are a physician that you cannot do if you are not a physician. Part of why physicians have that privilege is the extent to which they can be counted on to be faithful to a scientific community that defines what good care looks like," he said.

Physicians have a duty to provide accurate information about coronavirus vaccines, Baron said.

"The information physicians should be giving is that vaccines are safe and effective. The number of medical contraindications from getting the vaccine are extremely small—it is mainly people who can have allergic reactions to the vaccines. This is something that has been given to hundreds of millions of people, and the number of complications is tiny. At the same time, we have more than 650,000 people in the United States who have died from a disease that the vaccines seem to prevent successfully. So, physicians should be encouraging their patients to get COVID vaccine because they are at much higher risk of dying of COVID if they do not get vaccinated than they are of any bad outcome from the vaccines," he said.

Coronavirus vaccine misinformation from physicians takes a toll, Baron said. "It is hugely damaging because it provides support for things that are just not true, and that support moves around fast. We know that misinformation moves faster on Twitter than true information. So, when physicians use their position of trust and authority to put out misinformation, the impact ripples far beyond the people who hear it because it gets repeated and disseminated. When misinformation is attributed to a physician, it has more than casual authority."

Coronavirus vaccine misinformation degrades the medical profession, he said.

"Lots of people rely on and trust what physicians tell them, and misinformation is damaging not only for the patients who hear it but also damaging to the profession because it undermines trust in physicians. Frankly, one of the biggest reasons that we put out the statement we did was to provide clear support for the doctors who are trying to do the right thing and feel beleaguered and undercut by other doctors who are putting out information that is terrible, dangerous, and wrong."

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The Federation of State Medical Boards says physicians who engage in coronavirus vaccine misinformation risk suspension or revocation of their licenses.

The leaders of the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine, and American Board of Pediatrics say physicians who engage in coronavirus vaccine misinformation put their certifications at risk.

The president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine calls coronavirus vaccine misinformation from physicians "hugely damaging."

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