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Medical boards pressured to let it slide when doctors spread COVID misinformation


Tennessee’s Board of Medical Examiners unanimously adopted in September 2021 a statement that said doctors spreading COVID misinformation – such as suggesting that vaccines contain microchips – could jeopardize their license to practice.

“I’m very glad that we’re taking this step,” Dr. Stephen Loyd, MD, the panel’s vice president, said at the time. “If you’re spreading this willful misinformation, for me it’s going to be really hard to do anything other than put you on probation or take your license for a year. There has to be a message sent for this. It’s not okay.”

The board’s statement was posted on a government website.

But before any physicians could be reprimanded for spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines or treatments, Republican lawmakers threatened to disband the medical board.

The growing tension in Tennessee between conservative lawmakers and the state’s medical board may be the most prominent example in the country. But the Federation of State Medical Boards, which created the language adopted by at least 15 state boards, is tracking legislation introduced by Republicans in at least 14 states that would restrict a medical board’s authority to discipline doctors for their advice on COVID.

Humayun Chaudhry, DO, the federation’s CEO, called it “an unwelcome trend.” The nonprofit association, based in Euless, Tex., said the statement is merely a COVID-specific restatement of an existing rule: that doctors who engage in behavior that puts patients at risk could face disciplinary action.

Although doctors have leeway to decide which treatments to provide, the medical boards that oversee them have broad authority over licensing. Often, doctors are investigated for violating guidelines on prescribing high-powered drugs. But physicians are sometimes punished for other “unprofessional conduct.” In 2013, Tennessee’s board fined U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais for separately having sexual relations with two female patients more than a decade earlier.

Still, stopping doctors from sharing unsound medical advice has proved challenging. Even defining misinformation has been difficult. And during the pandemic, resistance from some state legislatures is complicating the effort.

A relatively small group of physicians peddle COVID misinformation, but many of them associate with America’s Frontline Doctors. Its founder, Simone Gold, MD, has claimed patients are dying from COVID treatments, not the virus itself. Sherri Tenpenny, DO, said in a legislative hearing in Ohio that the COVID vaccine could magnetize patients. Stella Immanuel, MD, has pushed hydroxychloroquine as a COVID cure in Texas, although clinical trials showed that it had no benefit. None of them agreed to requests for comment.

The Texas Medical Board fined Dr. Immanuel $500 for not informing a patient of the risks associated with using hydroxychloroquine as an off-label COVID treatment.


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