The epidemic continues. It continues to spread unabated. It continues to fill up hospitals and morgues. And if a physician contributes to this epidemic of misinformation and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, they could face disciplinary action, including the loss of their license to practice medicine.
That is the position of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), which has come out strongly against the spread of vaccine misinformation among members of the medical profession. It is not a theoretical problem, either. While the internet, school board meetings, and legislatures are full of individuals outside of the profession who spout nonsense about vaccines after “doing their own research,” there are also plenty of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who have spread false and misleading information about the safety or efficacy of vaccines.
In a statement dated July 29, 2021, FSMB issued a stern warning “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 federation made clear its opinion that those who spread vaccine misinformation should face disciplinary sanctions:
“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.”
FSMB has not yet formally defined “misinformation” or “disinformation” in its policy, but its ethics committee plans to provide more guidance at a later date. However, an FSMB spokesman has said that it considers misinformation to be “sharing or distributing verifiably false information” and disinformation as “sharing or distributing information that the distributor knows is false.”
Other professional organizations are backing up the FSMB. On September 9, 2021, the American Board of Family Medicine, the American Board of Internal Medicine, and the American Board of Pediatrics issued a joint statement in which they explicitly endorsed the FSMB’s position, adding that they “want all physicians certified by our Boards to know that such unethical or unprofessional conduct may prompt their respective Board to take action that could put their certification at risk.”
Other groups of physicians and healthcare professionals are joining in the fight against misinformation spread by members of the profession. In a September 21, 2021 Washington Post opinion column, three physicians, including an Illinois endocrinologist, announced the launch of NoLicenseForDisinformation, “a grassroots campaign that aims to ensure that physicians who spread Covid-19 disinformation are held accountable.”
This profession-wide pushback against disinformation should put all medical professionals on notice that their words about COVID vaccines have consequences, not only to the health and well-being of the general public, but to their careers and reputations as well.