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Under pressure from Republican state lawmakers, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners has removed from its website its recent policy statement that physicians who spread false information about COVID-19 vaccinations risk suspension or revocation of their medical license.
The board’s 7-3 vote on December 7 to delete the statement followed repeated threats by a powerful state House Republican to dissolve the board and appoint all new members if it did not immediately take it down.
The Tennessee board’s statement was a verbatim restatement of a warning to physicians issued by the Federation of State Medical Boards in July. The federation cited a “dramatic increase” in dissemination of misinformation and disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine by physicians. It said that’s dangerous because physicians enjoy a high degree of public credibility.
Across the country, state medical licensing boards and state and national medical associations and specialty boards are struggling with how to respond to scientifically baseless public statements about COVID-19 by some physicians, which they say are increasing public confusion, political conflict, and preventable illnesses and deaths.
There have been only a small number of disciplinary actions by medical boards against physicians for spreading false COVID-19 information. Critics say the boards have been weak in responding to these dangerous violations of medical standards. As an example, they cite the State Medical Board of Ohio’s September renewal of the medical license of Sherri Tenpenny, DO, who had previously testified before Ohio lawmakers that COVID-19 vaccines magnetize their recipients and “interface” with cell phone towers.
“I’m not satisfied with what medical boards have done, and we are ramping up our efforts to press the boards to hold these physicians accountable,” said Nick Sawyer, MD, an emergency physician in Sacramento, California, who heads a group of healthcare professionals called No License for Disinformation.
Still, Tennessee board members insisted that the board’s policy of disciplining physicians who disseminate false information about COVID-19 vaccinations remains in effect, because state law empowers the board to take action against doctors whose unprofessional behavior endangers the public.
“COVID misinformation and disinformation has caused undue loss of life and jobs and other incalculable loss in our society,” said Melanie Blake, MD, MBA, a Chattanooga internist who’s president of the board. “Physicians have a responsibility to uphold their oath and put forward consensus-driven medical principles.”
But state Rep. John Ragan, the Republican co-chairman of the Joint Government Operations Committee, told the Tennessean newspaper that deleting the statement from the board’s website was equivalent to rescinding the policy. Ragan, who identifies himself as a business consultant and retired Air Force pilot, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Blake acknowledged that removing the statement from the board’s website has the potential to confuse Tennessee physicians. And the pressure from GOP lawmakers, who overwhelmingly control the Tennessee legislature, could discourage investigations and disciplinary actions against physicians who allegedly spread COVID-19 misinformation, she added. “It’s hard for me to answer whether this puts a chill on us,” she said.
In September, the Tennessee board, besides approving the general statement that physicians who spread COVID-19 disinformation could face licensure action, also directed the State Department of Health to prioritize investigations of physicians who spread outrageous claims. The board cited statements such as the vaccines are poisonous, cause infertility, contain microchips, or magnetize the body.
In response, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill in late October prohibiting the board from implementing any disciplinary process regarding the prescribing of “medication for COVID-19” without review and approval by Ragan’s committee. It’s not clear whether that language covers vaccines.
Last summer, in a similar move, Ragan threatened to dissolve the State Department of Health because its top vaccination official wrote a letter to medical providers explaining that state law allowed them to give COVID-19 vaccinations to minors older than 14 without parental consent. That official, Michelle Fiscus, MD, was fired in July.
Republican Sen. Richard Briggs, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon who voted against the October legislation affecting COVID-related disciplinary actions, criticized his GOP colleagues’ interference in the medical board’s licensure decisions. “The mission of the board is to protect the health and safety of Tennessee citizens, and this was in complete conflict with that mission,” he said.
The Federation of State Medical Boards similarly condemned the Tennessee lawmakers’ moves. “The FSMB strongly opposes restricting a board’s authority to evaluate the standard of care and assess potential risk for patient harm,” a spokesman said. “Any interference, politically motivated or otherwise, is unhelpful and dangerous.”
But Arthur Caplan, PhD, a professor of bioethics at NYU School of Medicine, doubts that state medical boards are up to the task of policing disinformation spread by physicians. That’s because they ultimately are under the control of elected state officials, who may force the boards to base policy on ideology rather than science.
He said medical board members in Florida and another GOP-controlled state have told him they do not want to pursue disciplinary actions against physicians for COVID-19 misinformation for fear of political backlash.
Michele Heisler, MD, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights, agreed that the Tennessee situation highlights the looming political threat to the independence of state medical boards. She urged other medical organizations, particularly medical specialty boards, to step in.
“As a profession, we need to take a stance against this,” said Heisler, who’s a professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “Our credibility as physicians is at stake.”
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