Should physicians lose their license for posting COVID-19 misinformation? 5 hospital execs weigh in 

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Throughout the pandemic, misinformation related to COVID-19 and vaccines has plagued social media platforms, but what happens when physicians are involved in the spread of false, harmful information? 

The Federation of State Medical Boards, a nonprofit that represents all U.S. state medical boards, warned July 29 that physicians and other healthcare professionals could be at risk of losing their medical licenses if they spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation on social media, online and in the media. 

While FSMB has not yet formally defined what constitutes "misinformation" or "disinformation" in its policy, the organization's ethics committee is studying the issues and plans to provide more guidance at a later date, an FSMB spokesperson told Becker's. 

​​"However, we currently view misinformation as sharing or distributing verifiably false information," the spokesperson said, adding that FSMB "define[s] disinformation as sharing or distributing information that the distributor knows is false." 

FSMB's warning came just days before an Aug. 6 school board meeting in Indiana went viral on YouTube, where a video shows family practice physician Dan Stock, MD, speaking out against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and mask policies. He made several claims about the virus and COVID-19 vaccines that go against information and recommendations from the CDC and Indiana State Department of Health, according to local NBC affiliate WTHR

In July, President Joe Biden called out social media platforms like Facebook for letting vaccine misinformation spread on its services, claiming that the vaccine misinformation is "killing people," CNBC reported. 

Here, five hospital executives share whether they think physicians should have their licenses suspended or revoked for creating or spreading misinformation and disinformation on social media, online or in the media as well as how their organizations address protocols for managing physician social media activity. 

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

John Bulger, DO. CMO, Insurance Operations and Strategic Partnerships, at Geisinger (Danville, Pa.). Regulatory bodies have specific rules as it relates to the practice of medicine — this includes advice given to the public. If those lines are crossed, physicians, as professionals, should be subject to the appropriate consequences. Apart from the regulatory consequences, the self-governance of the medical profession should also monitor this behavior and collegially address it.

Geisinger's social media protocol states that one must clearly note when one is making a personal statement about any subject. One must also not use Geisinger resources to make these statements. Geisinger has a code of conduct that addresses unprofessional behavior.

William (Bill) Melms, MD. CMO at Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic. As deplorable as it would be to spread any misinformation about the vaccine or to do anything to influence people not to get the vaccine, I do believe it would be an overreach to tie licensure to this activity.

We encourage our staff to connect with our communications department ahead of time if they want to post anything educational or informational on social media. Also, we have strict guidelines that prohibit staff from posting anything in opposition to our policies or philosophy if they identify themselves as employees of the clinic.

James Alexander, MD. CMO at Harrisburg (Ill.) Medical Center. Removing a physician's license over a post or statement would seem to be a violation of free speech and allowing minimal due process.  

We do have a program and guidelines in the bylaws for social media and physician behavior in and out of the clinical setting.  

David Rottinghaus, MD. CMO at Butler (Pa.) Health System. If the information is deceptive or misleading, I think they should be suspended with a future review of their board to determine whether to revoke or repeal the license. A prime example is the family practice physician that has been circulated all over YouTube. He should be marginalized and suspended.

We do not monitor the private social media accounts of our employees. 

Richard Miller, MD. CMO at JPS Health Network (Fort Worth, Texas). Yes. I totally agree that spreading false information about COVID-19 and the vaccine is against our oath to help our patients. They should be at risk of losing their medical license.

We have a zero tolerance policy for any employee that posts patient information on social media. Derogatory comments regarding the workplace or any disparaging posts about our institution or any other employee also have zero tolerance. They are dismissed immediately.

 

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