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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion State medical boards should punish doctors who spread false information about covid and vaccines

In this Dec. 15, 2020, photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a person was injected with the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I. (David Goldman/AP)

Nick Sawyer is an emergency medicine physician in Sacramento. Eve Bloomgarden is an endocrinologist in Illinois and chief operating officer of impact4hc.com. Max Cooper is an emergency medicine physician and elected township official in Delaware County, Pa. Taylor Nichols is an emergency medicine physician in Sacramento. Chris Hickie is a pediatrician in Phoenix.

Nineteen months into the covid-19 pandemic, American medicine is at an inflection point. Tens of thousands of physicians — and an even larger number of our colleagues in the allied health professions — have been caring for sick covid patients under extreme, often under-resourced, conditions. Many have become ill with the virus; more than 3,600 health-care workers are among the more than 668,000 Americans who have died because of it. With the development of three vaccines, we in the medical profession thought this nightmare might soon come to an end. We were wrong.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the virus has had an accomplice — the infodemic, as the World Health Organization calls this parallel epidemic of disinformation. Regrettably, much of it is circulated by a small number of unethical physicians in league with political interests, who intentionally generate and repeat false allegations and undermine the public health response. Individual front-line physicians are powerless to restrain those misguided colleagues. We now call on our country’s regulatory bodies, primarily the state medical boards, to take the requisite disciplinary measures — including suspension or revocation of guilty physicians’ licenses to practice medicine.

It’s important to understand that the wrongdoing involved is not misinformation — that is, something that a person incorrectly but innocently believes to be true. It is disinformation, which is information created and shared with the intent to deceive. For many months a well-coordinated network of disinformation doctors has been working to undermine mask-wearing and lockdowns, spread anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, and promote phony covid “cures'' such as hydroxychloroquine and the horse-deworming drug ivermectin.

The best known of these groups calls itself “America’s Frontline Doctors” — though many physicians in this group have never practiced emergency medicine, and some haven’t practiced any form of medicine for years. Amid the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, this group was ushered into the public arena to discredit medical science. They began by trying to convince Americans that the potential for severe illness from covid-10 was a hoax, in the interest of keeping the U.S. economy open and thus fueling Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Through their social media platforms and rallies, they continue to sow distrust of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and dissuade their audiences from following public health guidelines. In January, the group published a white paper denouncing vaccines.Its members have held rallies to spread their message in states including Florida, Texas and California — all of which are now experiencing covid spikes. Now, with the delta variant, those cases include a large number of very sick children.

In July, the Federation of State Medical Boards — a group that represents 71 medical regulatory agencies in all 50 states, D.C. and U.S. territories — finally denounced physicians who generate or spread such disinformation. In a strongly worded statement, the federation said those doctors’ actions contradict their “responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients” and threaten to “erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.” It warned that such doctors should be subject to “suspension or revocation of their medical license.”

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But these physicians will not be dissuaded by strongly worded statements. Consider Simone Gold — a California physician and noted advocate of the hydroxychloroquine “cure.” In 2020 she was one of the founders of America’s Frontline Doctors; today, as NPR reported, Gold continues to spread disinformation, discourage vaccination and promote unproven treatments for covid (for which, NPR noted, she was offering to prescribe via a $90 telehealth appointment). She was arrested after Jan. 6, when she participated in the incursion into U.S. Capitol, having come to Washington that day to speak at a “rally for health freedom.” Simone Gold is still licensed to practice medicine in the state of California.

State medical boards must immediately act to revoke the medical licenses of doctors who use their professional status to deliberately mislead patients for reasons of politics or profit. Thus far, regulatory bodies have largely failed in this duty.

Health-care workers are tired of battling on two fronts — fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus in our hospitals, and fighting the onslaught of disinformation in the public mind. We represent a group of doctors and other health-care professionals who have created a website — NoLicenseForDisinformation.org — to help identify the most egregious professional offenders. We are encouraging other health-care workers to join our effort, and we hope members of the public will use the website to report bad actors to their individual state medical licensing boards.

This is not a step we ever thought we would have to take, but we feel we have no other choice. We hope that a public expression of overwhelming concern will lead to action around the country. We, and our patients, are relying on those with authority to exercise it and hold medical professionals accountable for their misdeeds.