Public Health

California law could punish doctors for spreading Covid misinformation

Though California has passed a law aimed at preventing doctors from spreading Covid misinformation to their patients, many states are going in the opposite direction.
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· 4 min read

At the end of September, California made it possible for doctors who spread Covid-19 mis- and disinformation to their patients to face punishment. Passed in response to a nationwide rise in misinformation that’s been linked to unnecessary Covid deaths, the law classifies “the dissemination of misinformation or disinformation” about Covid as a form of unprofessional conduct, which can be investigated and potentially punished by state medical boards.

“The spread of misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19 vaccines has weakened public confidence and placed lives at serious risk,” the law states.

It only applies to discussions directly between a doctor and a patient “under their direct care” and “does not apply to any speech outside of discussions directly related to Covid-19 treatment,” Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to the California State Assembly. It doesn’t apply to posts on social media.

But, according to Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, that’s exactly where most of the misinformation is being spread. And a small number of people may be responsible for a lot of the misinformation circulating.

Nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine posts on Facebook and Twitter made between Feb. 1, 2021, and March 16, 2021—more than 812,000 messages—were tracked back to just 12 people, according to a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit aimed at countering online hate and misinformation.

“It’s not a doctor-patient relationship…where the harm is happening,” Wallace said. “It’s a social media mass-spreading of misinformation.”

Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said he doesn’t think the California law will do much to counter medical misinformation because state medical boards “don’t have the resources to really do anything.” They are often “underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced,” he said.

“You can pass whatever law you want. If you don’t add budget for investigators, if you don’t start paying more people for their time serving on the board…it doesn’t matter what laws you pass, nothing will happen,” Caplan said.

Unclear how docs could be punished

Under the law, a doctor found by a state medical board to have spread Covid misinformation to their patients “with malicious intent or an intent to mislead” could be subject to discipline or potentially lose their medical license.

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Caplan said that the level of discipline should be based on the severity of the individual case. For example, if a doctor told their patients to take an excessive amount of vitamin C to avoid getting a cold, “I’m not sure anything bad happens if you do it. It’s not a big health risk.”

“I wouldn’t punish you the same way I would if you said, ‘I would not give birth in a hospital because it’s too dangerous, go home and do a home birth,’” Caplan said.

Federal misinformation law seems unlikely

The California law is the first of its kind, but a number of states are pushing in the opposite direction. Lawmakers in half of US states have introduced legislation that would limit their state medical board’s authority to discipline doctors for promoting Covid-related misinformation as of April 2022, according to PEW.

The law has also faced criticism from doctors, like Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. She wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that, though she believes doctors who “purvey misinformation” in violation of their oath should be stripped of their license, the California law would “have a chilling effect on medical practice” and “could paradoxically worsen patient care.”

Wen argued in the piece that if the law were to be interpreted “to the extreme,” doctors could potentially be punished for something like agreeing with a patient who did not want a Covid booster after they already had the virus, since the CDC “does not consider infection to take the place of a booster.”

Wallace said she interprets the law as being meant for “blatant, egregious cases” of misinformation, though the wording of the law doesn’t specify. It defines misinformation as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care.

Passing a law like California’s at the federal level probably won’t happen, Wallace said, “without a big fight.”

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