It's Right to Discipline Docs Who Spread False Information About COVID-19

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


December 07, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

There's been a large amount of controversy spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic about what to do with misinformation, particularly about vaccines. The internet, social media, all the false information about the risks and the dangers of vaccines. I'm sure many watching this after dealing with patients who come in saying they read something on some site that is just completely wrong or false and made up.

There are plenty of antivaccine individuals and groups that are committed to stopping vaccination at any price, and they will circulate any type of suggestion or possibility that vaccines are dangerous or useless.

It is well established by not only people who are in government, but also by groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, that COVID-19 vaccinations are very safe and can help prevent long-term side effects or deaths from COVID-19. We know that vaccines are absolutely very useful for dealing with all manner of childhood infectious diseases.

Sadly, one of the biggest groups out there that promotes disinformation is sometimes doctors. I don't want to suggest there are many of them, but there are doctors and a few nurses who have made a reputation for themselves as antivaccine heroes to antivaccine groups. Their power and influence are strong.

Some of them are against all vaccines. Some recommend not to follow the vaccine schedule, stretch it out in ways that endanger particularly children when you're not following the recommended dosage schedule. Others are simply promoting alternative medicines, and sometimes they're selling those very alternative medicines rather than recommending vaccination.

Professional groups have condemned these physicians. One or two, in my experience, have actually had their licenses challenged. Generally speaking, sadly, this small number of doctors has been getting away with spreading misinformation without penalty.

The state of California has finally had enough. They have approved a bill that allows the state medical board in California to discipline physicians specifically who spread misinformation about COVID-19. They say that [spreading misinformation about COVID-19] meets the standard for unprofessional conduct — disseminating falsity about COVID-19 vaccination, it's prevention, and treatment.

Maybe, by the time this airs, the governor will have signed that bill. I hope that the governor signs it. I think this legislation is needed and I would like to see more states enact similar legislation.

Some say that the professional societies that govern licensure in states already have the authority to take away a license or put someone on suspension for disseminating false information about COVID-19. In all honesty, very few have, and some feel that their, if you will, charge to watch out for unprofessional conduct doesn't really include sending out false information about COVID-19 vaccines or treatment. They say, "Isn't that free speech?"

Well, the answer California is showing us is that no, you're harming people. You're hurting those who are vulnerable, including children, prisoners, and those in long-term care facilities and nursing homes who need these vaccines and need monoclonal antibodies if they do get infected. It violates what doctors ought to be doing.

Even though one might argue that you already have the power, California is being clear, loud, and pointed in saying, "You risk your license if you get on board disinformation, falsity, or false facts; you're going to have to account to the medical board for doing that."

Still in the middle of a pandemic that hasn't gone away and facing others that might emerge, such as monkeypox or the return of diseases like measles because of lower vaccination rates for kids, I think this is precisely the time to get on board that type of legislation and make it clear that sending out false information and putting people at risk by lying has consequences for the doctors and nurses who do it.

I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

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