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Will Doctors Who Are Spreading COVID-19 Misinformation Ever Face Penalty?

9 minute read

Earlier this month, Dr. Rashid Buttar posted on Twitter that COVID-19 “was a planned operation” and shared an article alleging that most people who got vaccinated against the coronavirus would be dead by 2025.

His tweets are a recent addition to a steady stream of spurious claims about the COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Another example is Dr. Sherri Jane Tenpenny’s June testimony, before Ohio state legislators, that the vaccine could cause people to become magnetized. Clips from the hearing went viral on the internet. Earlier in the pandemic, on April 9, 2020, Dr. Joseph Mercola posted a video about whether hydrogen peroxide could treat the coronavirus; it was shared more than 4,600 times. In the video, Mercola said that inhaling hydrogen peroxide through a nebulizer could prevent or cure COVID-19.

These physicians are part of the “Disinformation Dozen,” a group of top super-spreaders of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, according to a 2021 report by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. The report, which was based on an analysis of anti-vaccine content on social media platforms, found that 12 people were responsible for 65% of it. The group is comprised of physicians, anti-vaccine activists and people known for promoting alternative medicine.

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It’s particularly alarming that the Disinformation Dozen includes physicians because their medical credentials lend credence to their unproven, often dangerous—and very visible—claims. All three identified in the report continue to hold medical licenses and have not faced consequences for their statements. However, leaders of professional medical organizations are increasingly calling for that to change and urging medical oversight boards to take more aggressive action.

In July, the Federation of State Medical Boards issued a statement making clear that doctors who generate and spread COVID-19 misinformation could be subject to disciplinary action, including having their licenses suspended or revoked. The American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine and American Board of Pediatrics issued a joint statement of support Sept. 9, warning that “such unethical or unprofessional conduct may prompt their respective Board to take action that could put their certification at risk.”

Read more: How Scientists Are Using Social Media to Counter Coronavirus Misinformation

The super-spreaders identified by the center’s report are not alone. By combing through published fact checks and other news coverage, KHN identified 20 other doctors who made false or misleading claims about the coronavirus but have had no action taken against their medical licenses.

For example, at an Indiana school board meeting in August, Dr. Dan Stock claimed the surge in cases this summer was due to “antibody mediated viral enhancement” from vaccinated people. PolitiFact rated his claim “Pants on Fire” false.

Dr. Stella Immanuel, a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that has consistently made false statements about the virus, said in a video that went viral in July 2020 that masks weren’t necessary because the virus could be cured by hydroxychloroquine. Immanuel’s website currently promotes a set of vitamins, as well as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, as covid treatments.

Two of the doctors that we’re naming in this article responded to requests for comment. Mercola offered documents that he claimed rebutted criticisms of hydrogen peroxide treatment and took issue with the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s methodology. Buttar defended his stance that COVID-19 was planned and that those who got vaccinated would die. He said via email that “the science is clear and anyone who contests it, has a suspect agenda at best and/or lacks a moral compass.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, misinformation has been widespread on social media platforms. Many experts are adamant that these lies and misleading claims undermined efforts to get the pandemic under control. According to a recent poll, more than 50% of Americans who won’t get vaccinated believe a conspiracy theory—for example, that the shot causes infertility or alters DNA.

Some physicians have gained notoriety by embracing coronavirus-related fringe ideas, quack treatments and other falsehoods via social media, on conservative talk shows and even in person with patients. Whether promoting the use of ivermectin, which is an anti-parasitic drug for animals, or a mix of vitamins to treat the virus, doctors’ words can be powerful. Public opinion polls consistently show that Americans have high trust in doctors.

“There is a sense of credibility that comes with being a doctor,” says Rachel Moran, a researcher who studies COVID-19 misinformation at the University of Washington. “There is also a sense they have access to insider info that we don’t. This is a very confusing time, and it can seem that if anyone knows what I should be doing in this situation, it’s a doctor.”

While the coronavirus is a novel and complicated infectious disease, the physicians spreading misinformation have no particular expertise in infectious diseases. For example, Dr. Scott Atlas, who was an adviser to President Donald Trump, downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, opposed state lockdowns, questioned the efficacy of masks and endorsed natural herd immunity as a way to combat the pandemic. He’s a radiation oncologist.

Read more: How to Spot Coronavirus Misinformation

Traditionally, state medical boards have been responsible for policing physicians. Beyond licensing medical doctors, these panels investigate complaints and discipline doctors who engage in unethical, unprofessional or, in extreme cases, criminal activity. Any member of the public can submit a complaint about a physician.

“The boards are relatively slow and weak and it’s a long, slow process to pull somebody’s license,” says Arthur Caplan, founding head of the department of medical ethics at New York University. “In many states, they have their hands full with doctors who have committed felonies, doctors who are molesting their patients. Keeping an eye on misinformation is somewhat down on the priority list.”

To date, only two doctors reportedly faced such sanctions. In Oregon, Dr. Steven LaTulippe had his license suspended in December 2020 for refusing to wear a face mask at his clinic and telling patients that masks were ineffective and dangerous. Dr. Thomas Cowan, a San Francisco physician who posted a YouTube video that went viral in March 2020 stating that 5G networks cause COVID-19, voluntarily surrendered his medical license to California’s medical board in February 2021.

However, Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, president of the Federation of State Medical Boards, says it’s possible that some doctors could already be the subject of inquiries and investigations, since these actions are not made public until sanctions are handed down.

KHN reached out to the medical and osteopathic boards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia to see if they had received COVID-19 misinformation complaints. Of the 43 that responded, only a handful shared specifics.

During a one-week period in August, Kansas’ medical board received six such complaints. In total, the state has received 35 complaints against 20 licensees about spreading pandemic-related misinformation on social media and in person. Indiana has received about 30 complaints in the past year. South Carolina said it had received about 10 since January 2021. Rhode Island didn’t share the number of complaints it has received but said it has taken disciplinary action against one doctor for spreading misinformation, though it hasn’t moved to suspend his license. (The disciplinary measures include a fine, a reprimand on the doctor’s record and a mandate to complete an ethics course.) Five of the states KHN reached out to said that they had received only a couple complaints, and 11 states reported receiving zero complaints about COVID-19 misinformation.

Confidentiality laws in 13 states prevented those boards from sharing any information about complaints.

Social media companies have been slow to take action. Some doctors’ accounts have been suspended, but others are still active and posting misinformation.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, says social media platforms often don’t consistently apply their rules against spreading misinformation.

“Even when it’s the same companies, Facebook will sometimes take posts down, but Instagram will not,” Ahmed says, referring to Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. “It goes to show their piecemeal, ineffective approach to enforcing their own rules.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the company has removed more than 3,000 accounts, pages and groups for repeatedly violating COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation policies since the beginning of the pandemic. Buttar’s Facebook and Instagram pages and Tenpenny’s Facebook page have been removed, while Mercola’s Facebook posts have been demoted, which means that fewer people will see them. Tenpenny and Mercola both still have Instagram accounts.

Part of the challenge is that these doctors sometimes present scientific opinions that aren’t mainstream but are viewed as potentially valid by some of their colleagues.

“It can be difficult to prove that what is being said is outside the range of scientific and medical consensus,” Caplan says. “The doctors who were advising Trump—like Scott Atlas—recommended herd immunity. That was far from the consensus of epidemiologists, but you couldn’t get a board to take his license away because it was a fringe opinion.”

Even if these physicians don’t face consequences, it is likely, experts said, that public health will.

“Medical misinformation doesn’t just result in people making bad personal and community health choices, but it also divides communities and families, leaving an emotional toll,” says Moran, the University of Washington researcher. “Misinformation narratives have real sticking power and impact people’s ability to make safe health choices.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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