We Physicians Must Pull Together as a Knowledge Community

Renée S. Kohanski, MD, and Robert S. Emmons, MD

November 30, 2021

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

The COVID-19 pandemic is a biosocial phenomenon. Patients and doctors alike find themselves assigned to groups designated as responsible and wise, or selfish and irrational, based strictly upon their personal assessments of medical risk. This trend in our culture is represented by threats of disciplinary action issued by medical regulators against physicians who are perceived to be undermining the public health message by spreading "misinformation."

Dr Renée Kohanski

Our review of the literature reveals many references to "misinformation" but no definition narrow and precise enough to be interpreted consistently in a disciplinary environment. More pressing, this ambiguous word's use is correlated with negative meaning and innuendo, often discrediting valuable information a priori without actual data points.

Dr Robert Emmons

The most basic definition available is Merriam Webster's: "incorrect or misleading information." This definition includes no point of reference against which competing scientific claims can be measured.

Claudia E. Haupt, PhD, a political scientist and law professor, articulates a useful framework for understanding the relationship between medicine and state regulators. In the Yale Law Journal, Haupt wrote: "Knowledge communities have specialized expertise and are closest to those affected; they must have the freedom to work things out for themselves. The professions as knowledge communities have a fundamental interest in not having the state (or anyone else, for that matter) corrupt or distort what amounts to the state of the art in their respective fields."

Injecting the artificial term "misinformation" into the science information ecosystem obfuscates and impedes the very ability of this vital knowledge community to perform its raison d'être. Use of the term misinformation with no clear scientific parameters ultimately makes it into a word that discredits, restrains, and incites, rather than attending to healing or promoting progress.

Time has certainly shown us that science is anything but settled on all things COVID. If the scientific community accepts disrespect as the response of choice to difference of opinion and practice, we lose the trust in one another as colleagues; we need to keep scientific inquiry and exploration alive. Curiosity, equanimity, and tolerance are key components of the professional attitude as we deftly maneuver against the virus together.

In the face of deadly disease, it is especially imperative that intelligent, thoughtful, highly respected scientists, researchers, and physicians have room to safely share their knowledge and clinical experience. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons has published a statement on scientific integrity that can be used as a measuring stick for claims about misinformation in medicine. We call on physicians to pull together as a knowledge community. Kindness and respect for patients starts with kindness and respect for one another as colleagues.

Kohanski is in private practice in Somerset, N.J., and is a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology. She disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Emmons is part-time clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, Burlington, and is a past chair of the Ethics Committee for the Vermont District Branch of the American Psychiatric Association. He is in private practice in Moretown, Vt., and disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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