12 State Boards Have Disciplined Docs for COVID Misinformation

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Only 12 state medical boards have taken action against physicians who have spread false or misleading information about COVID-19, according to a new survey from the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).

The FSMB reports that in its 2021 annual survey two-thirds of its 71 member boards (which includes the United States, its territories, and Washington, DC) reported an increase in complaints about doctors spreading false or misleading information.

“The staggering number of state medical boards that have seen an increase in COVID-19 disinformation complaints is a sign of how widespread the issue has become,” said Humayun J. Chaudhry, DO, MACP, president and CEO of the FSMB, in a statement.

The FSMB board of directors warned physicians in July that they risked disciplinary action if they spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation.

The organization said 15 state boards have now adopted similar statements.

Chaudhry said the FSMB was “encouraged by the number of boards that have already taken action to combat COVID-19 disinformation by disciplining physicians who engage in that behavior and by reminding all physicians that their words and actions matter, and they should think twice before spreading disinformation that may harm patients.”

Medscape Medical News asked the FSMB for further comment on why more physicians have not been disciplined, but did not receive a response before publication.

Misinformation Policies A New Battleground

The FSMB and member board policies on COVID-19 around the country have become a new front in the war against mandates and restrictions.

The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners voted just recently to remove its statement of policy against the spread of misinformation from its website after a Republican lawmaker allegedly threatened to dissolve the board.

The vote came just a few months after the board had approved the policy. The board did not rescind the policy, however, according to a report by the Associated Press.

In California, the president of the state’s medical board tweeted on December 8 about what she said was an incident of harassment by a group that has promoted “fake COVID-19 treatments.”

Kristina Lawson said she observed four men sitting in front of her house in a truck. They flew a drone over her residence, and then followed her to work, parking nose-to-nose with her vehicle.

Lawson claimed that when she went to drive home the four men ambushed her in what was by then a dark parking garage. She said her “concern turned to terror” as they jumped out, cameras and recording equipment in hand.

The men told law enforcement called to the scene that they were just trying to interview her, according to a statement emailed by Lawson.

They had not made such a request to the California Medical Board.

Lawson tweeted that she would continue to volunteer for the board. “That means protecting Californians from bad doctors, and ensuring disinformation and misinformation do not detract from our work to protect patients and consumers,” she wrote.

The men who ambushed Larson allegedly identified themselves and were wearing clothing emblazoned with the logo of “America’s Frontline Doctors,” an organization that has trafficked in COVID-19 conspiracy theories and promoted unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, according to Time. It is led by Simone Gold, MD, who was arrested for breaching the US Capitol on January 6.

Despite her activities, on November 30, the California Medical Board renewed Gold’s 2-year license to practice.

Who’s Being Disciplined, Who’s Not

Gold is not alone. An investigation by NPR in September found that 15 of 16 physicians who have spread false information in a high-profile manner have medical licenses in good standing.

Sherri Tenpenny, DO, who has claimed that COVID-19 vaccines magnetize people and “interface” with 5G cell phone towers, was able to renew her license with the Ohio State Medical Board on October 1, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Some boards have acted. The Oregon Medical Board revoked the license of Steven LaTulippe, MD, and fined him $10,000 for spreading misinformation about masks and overprescribing opioids.

In August, Rhode Island’s Board of Medical Licensure suspended Mark Brody’s license for 5 years after finding that the doctor spread falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines, according to board documents.

Maine physician Paul Gosselin, DO, is on temporary suspension until a February hearing, while the osteopathic board investigates his issuance of vaccine exemption letters and the promotion of unproven COVID-19 therapies.

The board found that Gosselin had “engaged in conduct that constitutes fraud or deceit,” according to official documents.

The Washington State Medical Board has opened an investigation into Ryan N. Cole, MD, a physician who has claimed that COVID vaccines are “fake,” and was appointed to a regional health board in Idaho in September, according to the Washington Post.

The Idaho Capital Sun reported that Cole claims he is licensed in 11 states, including Washington. The Idaho Medical Association has also filed a complaint about Cole with the Idaho Board of Medicine, according to the paper.

New FSMB Guidance Coming

The FSMB said it expects more disciplinary actions as investigations continue to unfold.

The organization is drafting a new policy document that will include further guidelines and recommendations for state medical boards “to help address the spread of disinformation,” it said. The final document would be released in April 2022.

In the meantime, some states, like Tennessee and others, are trying to find ways to counter the current policy — a development the FSMB called “troubling.”

“The FSMB strongly opposes any effort to restrict a board’s authority to evaluate the standard of care and assess risk for patient harm,” the organization said in its statement.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA, Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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