Licenses of doctors who spread harmful COVID-19 information should be at risk

Licenses of doctors who spread harmful COVID-19 information should be at risk
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As a member of the Idaho Supreme Court for twelve years, I participated in many decisions involving negligence or misconduct by licensed physicians. Most of them were malpractice cases, seeking damages for negligence — violation of the established standard of care. There were also cases brought by the state board of medicine seeking to discipline a doctor for violation of the physician licensing law.

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a wide dichotomy between the conduct of medical professionals. The vast majority have worked to the point of exhaustion to keep the public free of infection and to save the lives of those who contract the virus. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. But there are a few vocal outliers who spread fear and misinformation, greatly hindering the effort to defeat the virus and save lives.

Several doctors across the country have risen to prominence of late by questioning the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, which have proven to be safe and effective, while touting alternate, unproven remedies. They use the facade of credibility derived from their medical license to mislead the public.

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In one case, a physician became a viral sensation for claiming that vaccines and masks are ineffective and that vitamin D, Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine are effective remedies. Science and field experience indicate he is wrong on all counts. Over 98 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated. 

In another case, a pathologist has enthusiastically endorsed the unproven remedies. At a meeting in Texas on July 27, he described the COVID-19 vaccine as “fake,” a “clot shot” and “needle rape” and falsely insinuated that a Boise surgeon died from being vaccinated. He has falsely claimed that thousands have died after getting vaccinated and that the mRNA vaccines cause cancer and autoimmune diseases. These contentions have been thoroughly debunked, but that has not stopped him from spreading this dangerous misinformation.

The question arises: What can be done about physicians who discourage the use of safe and effective preventive measures, while promoting unproven or fake remedies? The American Medical Association (AMA) says that spreading misinformation violates the code of ethics that licensed doctors agree to follow. The Federation of State Medical Boards has recommended that states consider suspending or revoking licenses of doctors who share false medical claims. That may be easier said than done, however.

State medical boards certainly can discipline licensees for misconduct, particularly where it is intentional. But disciplinary action is generally limited by the language of licensing statutes.

Almost always, either in the malpractice setting or in a disciplinary proceeding, the doctor’s alleged improper conduct has resulted in injury to a patient under the doctor’s care. Apparently, lawmakers never contemplated that a licensed physician would intentionally conduct himself in such a manner as to jeopardize the health and safety of a wide swath of the public. Welcome to the current era, where science is often trumped by politics when it comes to responding to a rampaging, deadly virus.

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There simply must be accountability where medical professionals abuse their positions of trust by trying to discourage the public from obtaining safe and effective preventive care, while promoting unproven treatments as a substitute. If statutory provisions are not conducive to preventing medical hucksterism, they must be strengthened.

How is it that a doctor can be required to pay millions for a medical malpractice claim involving one patient or lose his or her license for an egregious violation of a disciplinary statute in the patient setting but not have to suffer severe consequences for deliberately setting the stage for the infection of hundreds or thousands as a result of false and dangerous medical pronouncements? Every available avenue must be pursued to bring this misconduct to a halt. 

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and twelve years on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).