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Discipline targeting COVID-19 disinformation surged during pandemic—but so did state legislatures’ moves to halt such discipline

Two thirds of state medical boards saw an increase in complaints related to licensee dissemination of false or misleading information in 2021, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) reported December 9, basing the finding on its annual survey of its members.

The Federation also found that 26% of medical boards had made or published statements about the dissemination of false or misleading information and 21% had taken a disciplinary action against a licensee for engaging in such conduct.

“The staggering number of state medical boards that have seen an increase in COVID-19 disinformation complaints is a sign of how widespread the issue has become,” said FSMB president and CEO Humayun Chaudhry. FSMB is encouraged by the number of boards who have taken action by disciplining physicians who engage in disinformation, Chaudhry added.

However, several state legislatures debated taking aggressive action in 2021 against state health profession licensing boards over their attempts to discipline licensees for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccinations, or for dispensing or prescribing medication for the illness.

Before the end of the year in Tennessee, the legislature succeeded in changing state law to prevent that kind of discipline.

In October, he state Board of Medical Examiners had unanimously voted to adopt a policy of pursuing disciplinary action against doctors who spread demonstrably untrue information about COVID-19 vaccinations. The policy consisted of one paragraph establishing that doctors have an “ethical and professional responsibility” to share factual, scientifically grounded information or face consequences including investigation by the Department of Health.

That was in line with the official position of the FSMB. However, opposition from Rep. John Ragan, co-chair of the legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee, was immediate. Ragan demanded that the board delete the policy or appear before the committee to explain its decision, or face serious consequences such as a possible dissolution of the board and replacement of all of its members.

Although the board deleted the position statement from its website, the legislature considered several bills prohibiting the board from disciplining doctors for the way they treat or what they say about the coronavirus, and settled on one which was signed into law November 12.

Under Tennessee’s new law, any disciplinary process implemented by a health-related board regarding the “dispensing or prescribing of medication for COVID-19” must be created as a government “rule,” which under state administrative procedures law requires review and approval by the Government Operations Committee.

The FSMB said it is troubled by legislation introduced in so many states aimed at limiting smedical boards’ authority to act in the furtherance of public health and patient safety. The organization state that it “strongly opposes any effort to restrict a board’s authority to evaluate the standard of care and assess risk for patient harm.”