Shouldn't Docs Who Spread False COVID-19 Info Lose Their Licenses?

Harris Meyer

August 18, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

A tall, distinguished-looking physician in shirtsleeves and suspenders walked to the microphone at the Mt. Vernon, Indiana, school board meeting on a Friday evening in early August. He launched into an impassioned, 7-minute attack on the public health establishment's medical guidelines for COVID-19.

"The Center for Disease Control and the Indiana State [Department] of Health are giving you very bad scientific guidance," said Daniel Stock, MD, a primary care physician with a concierge practice in Noblesville, Indiana. He described himself as a "functional family medicine physician," though he is not board certified in family medicine.

Stock told the school board members that COVID-19 vaccines are counterproductive because they make coronavirus infections worse. He claimed his treatment of "over 15" COVID-19 patients with vitamin D, ivermectin, and zinc has kept them out of the hospital, and that those treatments reduce mortality risk from the disease by 75%. (A study released in mid-August found that ivermectin is ineffective in treating COVID-19).

In response to Stock's remarks, the state health department quickly issued a statement reaffirming that COVID-19 vaccines "are highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths." But by then, the YouTube video of Stock's comments had garnered nearly 600,000 views as of August 12 and had been shared over 10,000 times on Facebook. Opponents of COVID-19 vaccines and masking policies across the country have been citing his comments.

Across the country, state medical licensing boards and state and national medical associations are struggling with how to respond to scientifically baseless public statements about COVID-19 by some physicians such as Stock. They fear such statements are increasing public confusion and are heightening political conflict. Physicians accused of spreading false information include public officials such as Scott Atlas, MD, who served as President Donald Trump's COVID-19 advisor, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, whose YouTube account was temporarily suspended in August after he posted a video disputing the effectiveness of masking in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

"That's the problem ― those types of viral videos of someone somewhere who thinks they know something the rest of us don't," lamented Jennifer Bryan, MD, board chair of the Mississippi State Medical Association. "I don't know any good reason why a physician should be advising against vaccination. It's appropriate for medical boards to look into those situations."

The Federation of State Medical Boards agrees. In July, it warned that physicians who willfully spread false information about COVID-19 risk suspension or revocation of their medical license. The federation cited a "dramatic increase in the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation by physicians." That's particularly dangerous, it said, because physicians enjoy a high degree of public credibility.

Medical boards will particularly examine cases in which there is a pattern of misinformation or disinformation showing that a physician poses a continuing threat to public health, said Hank Chaudhry, DO, the federation's CEO. In some cases, he said, boards have contacted physicians and have persuaded them to voluntarily refrain from making false public statements, without taking disciplinary action.

"Words matter," he said. "Physicians have a really big platform, whether they realize it or not. Misinformation or disinformation in the context of COVID can not only cause harm but also death. We felt it was appropriate to remind physicians to be careful."

Although medical leaders stress that most physicians are promoting solid science on COVID-19, the London, United Kingdom–based Center for Countering Digital Hate, in a May report titled "The Disinformation Dozen," named four US physicians among 12 people who it said produce 65% of the misleading claims and lies about COVID-19 vaccines that abound on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The leading spreader of false claims, the group said, is Joseph Mercola, DO, an Illinois-licensed osteopath living in Cape Coral, Florida. He did not respond to requests for comment.

But so far, state licensing boards and federal and state medical associations generally have been reluctant to discipline or publicly call out physicians who have spread misinformation about the causes, treatments, vaccines, and prevention strategies for COVID-19. Some of these physicians, such as Mercola, have a long history predating the COVID-19 pandemic of disseminating scientifically baseless information, often in connection with their marketing of products and services.

For instance, the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana and the state attorney general's office, which brings medical disciplinary actions, declined to comment on Stock's public statements at the August school board meeting. When asked about Stock, the Indiana State Medical Association, without mentioning his name, said: "We urge Hoosier physicians to share the proven facts [about public health measures recommended by the CDC and the Indiana Department of Health] with their patients and their communities." Stock did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts say state medical boards are ill equipped and are often unwilling to address the challenge of disciplining physicians who disseminate dangerously false medical information. That enforcement gap is particularly troubling in the middle of a deadly pandemic such as this one.

"Unless you can show a harm to an individual patient, it's pretty tough to get the boards to do much," said Art Caplan, PhD, a professor of bioethics at the NYU School of Medicine, New York City. "I wish they would, but they just don't."

That's partly because state laws require the boards to engage in lengthy, confidential investigations and adversarial legal processes before imposing disciplinary actions. The laws generally require patients or members of the public to file a complaint before an investigation can start. Some states, however, do allow their medical boards to take rapid emergency action if a physician poses an immediate threat to patients or the public.

Another hurdle is that medical boards that seek to sanction physicians for making dangerously misleading public statements could face lawsuits alleging that such actions violate the physicians' constitutional free speech rights or their professional autonomy.

"We have free speech and you can get away with a lot of stuff," said Stephen Barrett, MD, who for many years has critically documented examples of medical fraud on his website, Quackwatch. "Some doctors would sue if they were challenged by medical boards, and I'm not sure the boards would win that court fight. People have written books with advice that killed people, and I'm not aware of a single case where the author was disciplined."

In addition, it's not clear that US physicians who are not government officials have any legal obligation ― as opposed to a moral obligation ― to the government or the public to promote public health, said Jonathan Moreno, PhD, a professor of medical ethics at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "Is transmitting misinformation about COVID-19 public health malpractice?" he asked. "Do we as a society see physicians having a special role as guides in an emergency? I'd like to think we do, but we don't have a strong tradition like that in the US."

But California State Sen. Richard Pan, MD, a pediatrician who represents the Sacramento area, doesn't buy the arguments about why medical boards can't discipline physicians for spreading misinformation. He successfully sponsored a 2019 bill that strengthens the medical board's ability to discipline physicians who dole out medically unjustified vaccine exemptions to children.

"A medical license is a privilege. It's an imprimatur from the state that the person is someone who upholds professional standards," Pan said. "If someone is intentionally spreading disinformation for personal gain and that's putting the public at risk, the medical board has a duty to act."

There have been only a few publicly announced disciplinary actions related to COVID-19 misinformation so far.

Last December, the Oregon Medical Board, on an emergency basis, suspended the license of Steven LaTulippe, MD, of Dallas, Oregon. He had publicly announced that he and his staff were not wearing masks in his clinic. In addiiton, he compared COVID-19 to the common cold and denied the governor's legal authority to adopt public health protection measures. A recorded message on his office phone said he's challenging the licensure action in court.

Last January, the Medical Board of California made Thomas Cowan, MD, of San Francisco, California, surrender his license after Cowan posted a YouTube video, which went viral last year, that claimed that 5G Internet networks cause COVID-19. He did not respond to a request for comment.

In May, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia reprimanded Stephen Malthouse, MD, and forbade him from speaking on issues related to COVID-19. He had written a widely circulated open letter to the province's chief health office claiming that the pandemic was "over" and that measures to control the spread of COVID-19 were worse than the virus. He has challenged the disciplinary action in court, alleging it violates his right to free speech.

Attacking the problem from a different angle, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued enforcement actions in cases in which physicians and other healthcare professionals engaged in deceptive business practices related to COVID-19. That approach may be applicable to a number of physicians accused of spreading COVID-19 misinformation, who allegedly have done so at least partly to sell unproven products and services to prevent or treat the disease.

In June, the FTC settled a case against Stephen Meis, MD, of Porterville, California. The settlement required that he stop making unsupported claims that his company's dietary supplements effectively treat COVID-19 symptoms and that he pay $103,420 in refunds to defrauded customers.

State medical boards in the United States generally are not allowed to disclose investigations or disciplinary processes until they finalize a disciplinary action, so other investigations that have not been publicly disclosed may be pending.

A spokesperson for the Medical Board of California said the board is aware of questionable statements about COVID-19 made by several physicians and "will be looking into it." That comment was in response to a question about statements made at a news conference last year by two Bakersfield emergency physicians, Artin Massihi, MD, and Dan Erickson, MD. They claimed that their COVID-19 testing data showed that the virus is not that dangerous. Erickson is an osteopath and is regulated by the Osteopathic Medical Board of California.

The two physicians' news conference prompted an unusual joint statement from the American College of Emergency Medicine and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine in April 2020 declaring that they "emphatically condemn" Massihi's and Erickson's "reckless and untested musings." The groups added that it appeared that the physicians issued the comments "to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public's health."

Neither Massihi nor Erickson responded to a request for comment.

No disciplinary action has been taken so far against the physician dubbed by the Center for Countering Digital Hate the world's most influential spreader of COVID-19 misinformation on social media. No recent public complaints have been filed and no disciplinary action has been taken Mercola, according to a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

According to court records, Mercola faced disciplinary complaints from the Illinois board in the early 2000s for allegedly providing false and potentially harmful medical advice on his website. There is no record of any final disciplinary action taken against him.

In widely disseminated online posts, Mercola has called the COVID-19 pandemic a "scam" and said "forced vaccination" is part of a plan to re-set the global economic system. He called COVID-19 vaccines "a medical fraud," claiming they "alter your genetic coding." In February, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered Mercola to stop saying on his website that various vitamins and dietary supplements he sells through his website are effective in preventing or treating COVID-19.

The New York Times reported in July that Mercola's English-language Facebook page has more than 1.7 million followers, that his Spanish-language page has one million, and that he has 300,000 followers on Twitter and 400,000 on YouTube.

In August, Mercola announced that he was deleting the large archive of articles he's written on his website but would continue to post articles every day that would be available on the site for only 48 hours. He explained his decision by saying he's facing "blatant censorship" as part of a "McCarthyism-like attack" from "the sitting President of the United States." He encouraged people to read his book, The Truth about COVID-19.

The lack of action against Mercola for his lengthy list of scientifically unfounded statements and marketing claims about COVID-19 and other medical conditions infuriates Quackwatch's Barrett. He's amazed that the Illinois board did not discipline Mercola despite a number of enforcement actions against him by the FTC and the FDA.

"If a doctor were to say to a patient, 'Don't wear a mask and don't get vaccinated,' the doctor would be held responsible for a bad outcome," he said. "But if you say it to millions and as a direct result a dozen people die, shouldn't the doctor also be held responsible for that misinformation? I think he should lose his license."

Another of the four physicians cited in the "Disinformation Dozen" report is Sherri Tenpenny, DO, an osteopath licensed in Ohio, who has published posts on social media advocating against masking, testing, and vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections. A spokesperson for the State Medical Board of Ohio said Tenpenny's license expires on October 1, 2021, and that any investigation would be confidential. She added that grounds for disciplinary action include "making a false, fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading statement in relation to the practice of medicine and surgery." Tenpenny could not be reached for comment.

A third physician named in the report is Christiane Northrup, MD, an ob/gyn formerly licensed in Maine who has published posts advocating unproven cures for COVID-19 and claiming that vaccines increase chronic illness. Dennis Smith, executive director of the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine, said the board received complaints about Northrup's posts but can't act because she withdrew her Maine license in 2015. He added that the Maine board can issue sanctions against physicians who engage in fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation or who post scientifically unfounded statements online.

The fourth physician identified in the "Disinformation Dozen" report is Rashid Buttar, DO, an osteopath practicing in Mooresville, North Carolina, who has claimed in social media posts that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility and that COVID-19 tests contain living microorganisms. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Medical Board said she could not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation of Buttar, who signed a consent order with the medical board in 2010 following charges of exorbitant fees, worthless tests and treatment, and false diagnoses. Undisclosed conditions were placed on his medical license in 2013. The spokesperson added that the board would investigate any information alleging that a physician spread false information about COVID-19.

Another physician who has caused widespread consternation over scientifically unfounded statements about COVID-19 is Simone Gold, MD, formerly an emergency department physician in Los Angeles, California. She founded a group called America's Frontline Doctors, which filed a federal lawsuit in Alabama this spring to block the FDA from issuing an emergency use authorization allowing teenagers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. She called the vaccines "an experimental biological agent whose harms are well-documented."

Last summer, Gold and other physicians in her group held a news conference on the steps of the US Supreme Court Building promoting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. They declared that masks don't work, that the virus isn't deadly, and made other false claims. The news conference was livestreamed by conservative media outlets, was promoted on Twitter by then-President Trump and his family, and was viewed online more than 14 million times.

One of the participating physicians, Stella Immanuel, MD, of Houston, Texas, claimed in a video that went viral that she had successfully used hydroxychloroquine for more than 400 patients to cure the disease. In response, the Texas Medical Board, without naming Immanuel, warned that if it received a complaint about any physician who made a false claim about having a cure for COVID-19, it would investigate and potentially take disciplinary action.

Although no publicly known disciplinary action has been taken against Gold, she told The Washington Post last January that after participating in that July 2020 news conference, she was fired from her emergency department job at two hospitals and that she hasn't worked as a physician since. Gold did not respond to a request for comment.

The outcome in her situation is consistent with the view of NYU's Caplan that methods other than medical board discipline ― such as action by employers, social media pressure, and reprimands from professional societies ― will have to be used to hold physicians accountable for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

"I'm disappointed to have to say it, but I don't think medical boards are going to be effective," he said. "We don't know how to manage misinformation despite being in a plague. We just don't.

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