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Seven legal risks of promoting unproven COVID-19 treatments


The emergence of COVID-19 has given the medical world a bewildering array of prevention and treatment protocols. Some physicians are advocating treatments that have not been validated by sound scientific studies. This has already led to licensing issues and other disciplinary actions being taken against physicians, pharmacies, and other health care providers across the country.

A judge's gavel pounding Kuzma/istockphoto

Medical professionals try their very best to give sound advice to patients. A medical license does not, however, confer immunity from being misled.

The supporting “science” for alternative prevention and treatments may look legitimate, but these claims are often based on anecdotal evidence. Some studies involve small populations, some are meta-analyses of several small or single-case studies, and others are not properly designed, interpreted, or executed in line with U.S. research and requirements. Yet others have been conducted only in nonhuman analogues, such as frogs or mice.

Many people are refusing a vaccine that has been proven to be relatively safe and effective in numerous repeated and validated studies in the best medical centers across the globe – all in favor of less validated alternatives. Well-intentioned medical professionals may be tempted to promote the information and products featured on websites that advocate for unproven products and protocols. This can have serious legal consequences.

The crux of the issue

This is not a question of a physician’s first amendment rights. Nor is it a question of advocating for a scientifically valid minority medical opinion. The point of this article is that promoting unproven products, preventives, treatments, and cures can have dire consequences for licensed medical professionals.

On July 29, 2021, the Federation of State Medical Boards’ Board of Directors released a statement in response to a dramatic increase in the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation by physicians and other health care professionals on social media platforms, online, and in the media. The statement reads as follows:

“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. They also have an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded, and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health. Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession, and puts all patients at risk.”

What are the legal consequences?

Medical malpractice

The first consequence to consider is professional liability or medical malpractice. This applies if a patient claims harm as a result of the health care practitioner’s recommendation of an unproven treatment, product, or protocol. For example, strongly discouraging vaccination can result in a wrongful death claim if the patient follows the doctor’s advice, chooses not to vaccinate, contracts COVID-19, and does not recover. Recommending or providing unproven approaches and unapproved treatments is arguably a violation of the standard of care.

The standard of care is grounded in evidence-based medicine: It is commonly defined as the degree of care and skill that would be used by the average physician, who is practicing in his or her relevant specialty, under the same or similar circumstances, given the generally accepted medical knowledge at the time in question.

By way of example, one can see why inhaling peroxide, drinking bleach, or even taking Food and Drug Administration–approved medications that have little or no proven efficacy in treating or preventing COVID-19 is not what the average physician would advocate for under the same or similar circumstances, considering available and commonly accepted medical knowledge. Recommending or providing such treatments can be a breach of the standard of care and can form the basis of a medical malpractice action if, in fact, compensable harm has occurred.

In addition, recommending unproven and unapproved COVID-19 preventives and treatments without appropriate informed consent from patients is arguably also a breach of the standard of care. The claim would be that the patient has not been appropriately informed of the all the known benefits, risks, costs, and other legally required information such as proven efficacy and reasonably available alternatives.

In any event, physicians can rest assured that if a patient is harmed as a result of any of these situations, they’ll probably be answering to someone in the legal system.

Professional licensing action

Regardless of whether there is a medical malpractice action, there is still the potential for a patient complaint to be filed with the state licensing authority on the basis of the same facts and grounds. This can result in an investigation or an administrative complaint against the license of the health care provider.

This is not a mere potential risk. Licensing investigations are underway across the country. Disciplinary licensing actions have already taken place. For example, a Washington Medical Commission panel suspended the license of a physician assistant (PA) on Oct. 12, 2021, after an allegation that his treatment of COVID-19 patients fell below the standard of care. The PA allegedly began a public campaign promoting ivermectin as a curative agent for COVID-19 and prescribed it without adequate examination to at least one person, with no evidence from reliable clinical studies that establish its efficacy in preventing or treating COVID-19.

In licensing claims, alleged violations of failing to comply with the standard of care are usually asserted. These claims may also cite violations of other state statutes that encompass such concepts as negligence; breach of the duty of due care; incompetence; lack of good moral character; and lack of ability to serve the public in a fair, honest, and open manner. A licensing complaint may include alleged violations of statutes that address prescribing protocols, reckless endangerment, failure to supervise, and other issues.

The filing of an administrative complaint is a different animal from a medical malpractice action – they are not even in the same system or branch of government. The focus is not just about what happened to the one patient who complained; it is about protection of the public.

The states’ power to put a clinician on probation, condition, limit, suspend, or revoke the clinician’s license, as well as issue other sanctions such as physician monitoring and fines), is profound. The discipline imposed can upend a clinician’s career and potentially end it entirely.

Administrative discipline determinations are usually available to the public and are required to be reported to all employers (current and future). These discipline determinations are also sent to the National Practitioner Data Bank, other professional clearinghouse organizations (such as the Federation of State Medical Boards), state offices, professional liability insurers, payers with whom the clinician contracts, accreditation and certification organizations, and the clinician’s patients.

Discipline determinations must be promptly reported to licensing agencies in other states where the clinician holds a license, and often results in “sister state” actions because discipline was issued against the clinician in another state. It must be disclosed every time a clinician applies for hospital privileges or new employment. It can result in de-participation from health care insurance programs and can affect board certification, recertification, or accreditation for care programs in which the clinician participates.

In sum, licensing actions can be much worse than medical malpractice judgments and can have longer-term consequences.


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