Medical boards, health systems or tech companies: Who draws the line on misinformation?

Ivermectin for COVID-19, microchips in the vaccines and the pandemic as a hoax. These are just a few of the conspiracy theories that have been proven to be false, yet nonetheless have circulated throughout the pandemic, bolstered by social media and polarized news. Some of the misinformation is spread by medical professionals themselves, giving medical boards, health systems and professional organizations a difficult task in regulating it. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 78 percent of U.S adults have heard of at least one false statement about COVID-19 and are either unsure of whether it is true or believe it to be true. On Nov. 19, the outgoing director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, also spoke candidly about the crisis of misinformation, saying "Truth is losing." 

Some of these people work in the healthcare industry. These professionals have often been suspended or had their license revoked, but the sector as a whole hasn't reached a clear consensus as to how to discipline such workers. 

Medical boards

The Federation of State Medical Boards, which supports state medical boards in licensing, disciplining and regulating clinicians, released a statement in July affirming that sharing disinformation could lead to state medical boards taking disciplinary action, including the suspension or revocation of a medical license.

"Since the release of this statement, several state medical boards have either endorsed it, or developed similar statements of their own which clarify professional responsibilities regarding the appropriate conveyance of medical information, especially during a pandemic," FSMB President and CEO Humayun Chaudhry, DO, said during the American Medical Association's meeting in November. "The FSMB is currently developing policy to provide guidance to our member state medical boards and clarify expectations regarding the appropriate use of evidence, physician responsibilities related to informed consent in treating relationships, and the importance of safeguarding society's trust in the medical profession."

Still, despite the July warning from the Federation of State Medical Boards, one physician in Nebraska tied to misinformation was able to renew her medical license in October with 12 mouse clicks. At the time, Dr. Chaudhry noted that renewals do not prevent boards from taking action.

In September, the Ohio State Medical Board renewed the license of a prominent anti-vaccine advocate and physician, casting further doubt on the power and willingness of state medical boards to regulate misinformation. 

While not directly regulating health misinformation, the American College of Physicians has been working on the issue, the group told Becker's

The nation's largest medical specialty organization on Oct. 13 announced a partnership with YouTube on educational content to help combat misinformation around COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

The videos focus on communication strategies for clinicians and provide information in clinicians' own words. 

"The spread of health misinformation continues to be a serious threat to the public health. The best tool to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus and its variants is to build trust in the use of science, based on the best available evidence," George M. Abraham, MD, president of the American College of Physicians, said in a news release at the time of the announcement. "We look forward to working with YouTube to develop resources and educational content to address this important issue."

Dr. Abraham also addressed the matter in a statement issued in September. 

He expressed his concern about the spread of misinformation, saying that this spread of inaccurate and incorrect information about COVID-19 hinders clinicians' ability to mitigate the spread of the virus and combat the pandemic.

He also called on clinicians not to contribute to spreading misinformation that can be harmful to patients, and noted that physicians have an ethical obligation "to put patient care and best interests above self-interest, and to provide patients and the public with accurate information about healthcare."

Health systems

Health systems are taking on the issue, too. 

Houston Methodist Hospital suspended the privileges of Mary Bowden, MD, on Nov. 12 after she used her social media accounts to spread "dangerous misinformation which is not based in science," the hospital said. 

Dr. Bowden, an ear, nose and throat physician in private practice, resigned her privileges at Houston Methodist Nov. 15.

Medical associations

Other medical associations have come forward against misinformation, releasing policy proposals to combat its spread. The American Medical Association recently created a plan to tackle fake news on public health. 

In a statement to Becker's, the AMA said: "throughout the pandemic, [the AMA] has been leveraging its channels and network to share the most relevant, fact-based information and resources to help physicians combat misinformation and communicate with their patients. Through our newest policy, we look forward to working with other health professional societies and stakeholders to further these efforts."

The association has hosted webinars for physicians on countering misinformation and developed guides for medical professionals to use to promote factual information. 

It told Becker's that the authority for regulation lies with state boards and the Federation of State Medical Boards. 

The AMA also issued a letter to social media companies in December 2020 urging them to combat COVID-19 misinformation. 

Social media companies

Although major distributors of false news and misinformation, social media companies have adopted different tactics in tackling the issue. HHS wrote that social media companies should strengthen misinformation monitoring and identify repeat offenders. It also suggested that technology companies should "impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies."

Given that there is no universal regulation overseeing all technology companies, platform policies differ between different companies. This makes regulating misinformation and punishing offenders challenging and disparate.  

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