Slow or empty threat? Physicians linked to misinformation still have licenses despite boards' warnings

Despite warnings from several national medical boards saying physicians who spread vaccine misinformation could lose their medical licenses, many are still in practice, a Sept. 14 NPR report found. 

On July 29, the Federation of State Medical Boards issued the following statement warning physicians and other healthcare professionals who create or spread vaccine misinformation that they may face disciplinary action: 

"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."

Of 16 physicians with proven track records of promoting misinformation on social media and in interviews, 15 of them still held their active licenses and were in good standing, NPR found. One of the physician's licenses had expired, but his record did not indicate it was related to disciplinary action. 

The group includes Simone Gold, MD, an emergency physician who last month delivered a speech telling people to avoid COVID-19 vaccination and touting unproven drugs as an effective treatment. Dr. Gold, who has more than 330,000 followers on Twitter, maintains an active physician license in California, though her emergency medicine certification lapsed in December, NPR found. 

The state's medical board told NPR it expects physicians to "follow the standard of care when treating patients at all times," but did not say whether it was investigating Dr. Gold or others, citing reasons of confidentiality. 

The lack of disciplinary action taken despite a number of warnings from medical boards is likely due to the nations' fragmented medical licensing system. Individual state licensing boards typically only respond to complaints against individual physicians, as they don't have the capacity to routinely monitor physicians' behavior. 

"People assume that licensing boards are on the lookout, they're on the internet," Humayun Chaudhry, DO, president of the Federation of State Medical Boards, told NPR. "They actually don't have the resources — neither the money nor the manpower — to monitor what happens on the internet or social media."

While only a small number of physicians are promoting vaccine misinformation, they have a disproportionate influence "because they the 'Dr.' before their name and they appear to understand what they're talking about," Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which tracks vaccine misinformation, told NPR.


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