ResourcesPress Release

COVID-19 Dis-/Misinformation and State Legislature Attacks on Medical Boards Undermine Public Health: PHR 

Amid a surge of state legislature efforts to limit medical boards’ ability to investigate patient harm, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) warns of undue political influence and a rising tide of disinformation that threaten public health.   

At least 26 states are considering legislation to either limit state medical boards’ authority to investigate patient harm or explicitly allowing for the off-label treatment of COVID-19 through unproven and unsafe treatments like Ivermectin, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).  

“If state medical boards cannot investigate licensed physicians who harm patients by going against evidence and standards of care, then who is to protect patients harmed by unsafe treatments they receive from doctors whom they trusted?” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director at PHR and professor of public health and internal medicine at University of Michigan. “State medical boards must ensure that actions that harm patients and generate mistrust in the medical profession are rigorously investigated. Perpetrators of harm and profiteers of disinformation should be disciplined, and when necessary, lose their licenses to practice medicine. State medical boards should play this vital role, not politicians.” 

On February 28, the FSMB called on states to allow medical boards to fulfill their professional duties of ensuring that no licensed physician undertakes careless, irresponsible actions that harm individual patients and public health: 

“State medical boards protect patients by investigating complaints, evaluating the standard of care and taking disciplinary action when appropriate. The FSMB opposes legislation intended to limit a board’s ability to conduct this important work as it sets a dangerous precedent and puts the public at risk. State legislatures are encouraged to work with their state medical boards to uphold existing statutory authority to respond to complaints about the quality of care provided and take disciplinary action against physicians when necessary to protect the public.” 

“Physicians for Human Rights strongly supports the FSMB and the individual state medical boards working to rigorously investigate complaints against licensed physicians,” said Dr. Heisler. “We urge all health professionals to help ensure these vital boards have the independence to pursue these professional duties.”  

In state legislatures across the United States, elected officials are threatening the ability of state medical boards to investigate claims of wrongdoing and take disciplinary actions against licensed professionals who spread disinformation or push claims about COVID-19 that are contrary to established science. For example, in North Dakota, the state legislature passed HB 1514, which states that “The [state medical] board may not take disciplinary action against a licensee based solely on the licensee prescribing or dispensing Ivermectin for the off-label treatment or prevention of [COVID-19].” In Wisconsin, legislation is pending upper chamber approval that “prohibits any examining board or affiliated credentialing board in the Department of Safety and Professional Services from retaliating against, discriminating against, or taking adverse action against, or denying, suspending, limiting, or revoking a credential to, a health care provider for expressing his or her professional opinions.”  

“Thinly veiled attempts to limit the oversight power of medical boards claim to protect the rights of physicians to state their ‘opinion.’ As physicians, we do not have a right to spread false and dangerous medical guidance, even if it is a provider’s ‘opinion,’” said Dr. Heisler. “The foundational principle in medical ethics is ‘do no harm.’ Prescribing Ivermectin or peddling one’s own unproven treatments while widely disseminating demonstrably false information about effective COVID-19 vaccines and other treatments are serious forms of harm that can contribute to preventable illness and death. Preventing such harms is precisely why state medical boards were created.”   

PHR also welcomes the recent statement by the American Medical Association (AMA) on the need to promote facts and restore trust in the medical profession:  

“We cannot overlook the fact that a small number of licensed physicians continue to foster belief in scientifically unvalidated and potentially dangerous ‘cures’ for COVID-19, which has increased vaccine hesitancy and fueled further politicization of the pandemic. Their actions violate the ethics of our profession and jeopardize the trust found at the center of the patient-physician relationship. Our AMA continues to urge state medical boards to respond swiftly and decisively when physicians spread falsehoods.” 

At the same time, health professionals who try to combat the tide of disinformation are routinely subjected to vitriol and threats. PHR condemns these attacks and supports  the health professionals who are working to share fact-based information, contest dis- and misinformation, and protect the health of their patients and the public.  

“Health professionals who call out disinformation and misinformation are performing a public service – they should never be subjected to death threats, doxing, or intimidation,” said Dr. Heisler.  

State legislatures should instead enhance the ability of state medical boards to fulfill their roles to conduct thorough investigations and, if needed, take disciplinary actions against licensed practitioners who harm their patients. Assembly Bill 2098 in California, for example, would allow the Medical Board of California to discipline doctors who promote COVID-19 misinformation by classifying it as unprofessional conduct. 

PHR calls on all states to stop efforts to impede medical boards from performing their primary obligation: to protect patients’ rights and health.   

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

Get Updates from PHR