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Medical Misinformation Harms Us All

Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS

Disclosures

September 29, 2022

As the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the monkeypox (MPX) outbreak a global health emergency, a new wave of anti-LGBTQ+ vitriol crested alongside it. Now, the MPX backlash has been added to the ongoing circulation of medical misinformation associated with the COVID pandemic, both in the US and abroad.

I'm an ID doc and I spend a large amount of my time with patients addressing misinformation about infection and recommended preventions (especially vaccination) or treatment. During the pandemic, though, these conversations became all-encompassing. And I found myself engaging in some heated discussions about medical misinformation with colleagues and work associates too.

Misinformation spread with unprecedented rapidity and reach during COVID, in large part due to algorithms of search engines, use of social media, and impressively deceptive websites. For healthcare providers who work hard to provide well-studied, evidence-based, and safe but efficacious patient care, the effects of misinformation have been both disheartening and exhausting. This is especially true when the continued distortions of truth are perpetuated by those of us in medicine.

I'm sure I don't need to expound further on the quackery of Mehmet Oz, who maintained his medical positions (professor and vice-chair of surgery at Columbia University and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital) for over a decade while actively promoting health and vaccine misinformation as host of The Dr. Oz Show.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate has a list known as "The Disinformation Dozen," comprising 12 people known to be responsible for spreading 65% of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media (among other bits of medical misinformation). Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic family medicine physician, heads the list which includes Sherri Tenpenny (also an osteopathic family medicine physician), Rashid Buttar (board-certified in clinical metal toxicology and preventive medicine, and board-eligible in emergency medicine), Christiane Northrup (an ob/gyn physician), and Ben Tapper (a chiropractor).

Have you heard of America's Frontline Doctors (AFLDS)? Founded during the pandemic with the support of right-wing politicians, AFLDS and its affiliated telehealth provider are under investigation by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis for spreading medical misinformation and monetizing access to inappropriate COVID treatments. As of November 2021, the groups had earned nearly $7 million promoting and prescribing such drugs as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The founder of AFLDS, Simone Gold (a licensed ER physician and lawyer with a part-time concierge practice in Los Angeles), was fined and sentenced to prison for taking part in the insurrection at the US Capitol.

AFLDS has now turned their attention to MPX. In addition to publishing a "Brief for Citizens and Policymakers" about MPX vaccines, they've posted a video featuring Peterson Pierre entitled "Monkeypox Jab: Just Say No!" on their website. Pierre, a California dermatologist referred to as the "gentle injector" by his patients, is known for such quotes as "the Biden Administration is literally paying hospitals to kill you" and "life insurance policies may deny payment if you die from the COVID-19 vaccine."

The Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC) is an organization led by Pierre Kory (former critical care physician at the University of Wisconsin) and Paul Marik (former chief of critical care at Eastern Virginia Medical School) that promotes, in particular, ivermectin as treatment for COVID. While the FLCCC doesn't directly offer telehealth visits or prescriptions, they link to a directory of pharmacies that will fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, and other medications; they also solicit donations and promote products (including swim trunks for $49.99 that show Kory in a superhero costume) via an online store.

Kory, who has encouraged use of weekly ivermectin to prevent COVID, contracted the coronavirus in 2021 despite being on the regimen himself. Marik is known for his promotion of the "Marik protocol," a combination of hydrocortisone, vitamin C, and vitamin B1 used to treat sepsis; a large global, randomized controlled trial has disproven its benefits. He has also been reprimanded by the Virginia Board of Medicine for offering prescriptions for people who weren't his patients.

Combating Misinformation

Thankfully, there have been some attempts to discipline doctors who spread misinformation, but progress has been slow. A grassroots coalition known as No License for Disinformation, established by a group of physicians, calls on state medical boards and other governing bodies to take measures against medical disinformation. A timeline exhibiting the impact of their work is reassuring, as is their website page that outlines the steps needed to report a doctor for COVID-related disinformation.

While some states have actually proposed bills that would protect healthcare professionals from punishment if they promoted COVID misinformation or unproven treatments, physicians have faced repercussions in other states (such as Pennsylvania, Maine, and Oregon). And just recently, California became the first state to approve a bill that will allow its state medical board to discipline physicians who spread misinformation about COVID-19.

The Surgeon General of the United States has made combating medical misinformation a priority and issued an Advisory for Confronting Health Misinformation in 2021. It outlines actions that can be taken by health professionals and health organizations; individuals, families, and communities; educators and educational institutions; journalists and media organizations; technology platforms; researchers and research institutions; funders and foundations; and governments.

It is interesting that none of the physicians who have been notably outspoken about COVID, MPX, or vaccinations have any formal infectious disease training or microbiology expertise. Some of them have never actually seen a patient with COVID (let alone MPX) or used the drugs they promote. We all know that medical misinformation is harmful, not only to individuals but to our collective public health; the least we can do as providers is ensure that we're not part of the problem.

Comments to this blog post are welcomed and encouraged. If you have an infectious disease topic you'd be interested in reading about here, please don't hesitate to mention it.

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About Dr Roni Devlin
Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS, is an infectious diseases physician currently residing in the Midwest. She is the author of several scholarly papers and two books on influenza. With a longstanding interest in reading and writing beyond the world of medicine, she has also owned an independent bookstore, founded a literary nonprofit, and published articles and book reviews for various online and print publications. You can reach her via LinkedIn.

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