Tennessee physicians who create or spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation could now face disciplinary action, including suspension or revocation of their medical licenses in the most extreme cases, according to a new policy from the state medical board that oversees doctors.
The policy was adopted by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners — a 12-member board that's appointed by the governor and responsible for disciplining physicians who violate practice standards — at its most recent meeting, on Sept. 21.
"Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk," the policy states.
Board President Dr. Melanie Blake, a Chattanooga-based internist, said during the meeting that the board was forced to address the issue due to "some outliers that are spreading misinformation, misguided information or disinformation — a deceptive form of misinformation."
Willingness to spread unsubstantiated information around vaccines calls into question a physician's ability to make other medical decisions, as well, she said.
"We're looking at prevention, education and treatment carefully and expecting our licensees to meet the standard of care, whether it's with respect to COVID or any other issue," Blake said.
The policy, which is based on language from the board of directors of the Federation of State Medical Boards, states "Licensed physicians possess a high degree of public trust and therefore have a powerful platform in society, whether they recognize it or not. They also have an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health."
Members of the public, including other health professionals, patients or their family members, can file complaints against practitioners whose performance or behavior is not acceptable through the state's health-related boards.
At least 24 coronavirus-related complaints have been lodged against Tennessee practitioners so far in 2021, according to Jamie Byerly, director of the office of investigations for health-related boards, who spoke during the September meeting.
Francine Baca-Chavez, deputy general counsel for the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners, asked the board for guidance on how to handle three different categories of complaints related to COVID-19 vaccines: when physicians share their personal anti-vaccine or vaccine-hesitant opinions with patients; when physicians make up or share false statements about vaccines in order to advise against vaccination; and when physicians spread misinformation or disinformation to multiple patients across their practice.
Board members debated the degree to which physicians should be allowed to express their personal opinions within the confines of a private doctor-patient relationship, but they agreed doctors who disseminate information about the COVID-19 vaccines that has been proven false, such as myths the vaccines contain microchips or cause infertility, should face formal discipline.
The degree of discipline would be based on the scope, severity and nature of each individual case and could include a range of civil penalties, mandated coursework and/or licensee suspension or revocation.
Dr. Stephen Loyd, vice president of the board and an addiction medicine specialist from Johnson City, Tennessee, compared the importance of the board's actions to limit physicians spreading vaccine misinformation to policies put in place limiting improper prescribing practices that fueled the opioid epidemic.
"If you're spreading this willful misinformation, for me, it's going to be really hard to do anything other than put you on probation and take your license for a year. There has to be a message sent for this — it's not OK," Loyd said. "There are things that I deal with in medicine that I have beliefs the other way. My job is to help my patient find a path that's right for them. If I can't do that, I need to send them somewhere else."
Tennessee isn't the first state medical board to begin cracking down on doctors who disseminate COVID-19 misinformation.
A physician from Oregon had his medical license revoked and was fined $10,000 for spreading COVID-19 misinformation and refusing to wear a mask in his medical practice, according to a Sept. 20 report in Becker's Hospital Review.
The Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure adopted the same policy as the Tennessee board in September, with an additional clause directed at social media behavior.
"Physicians must understand that actions online and content posted can affect their reputation, have consequences for their medical careers and undermine public trust in the medical profession," Mississippi's policy states.
Other Tennessee health boards, such as those that oversee pharmacists, nurses and physician assistants, are in the process of considering or adopting similar policies.
All practitioner discipline from health boards is complaint-driven, and board members said during the meeting that multiple complaints against single practitioners can help to establish patterns of bad behavior.
To file a complaint, the public can contact the complaint division of the Department of Health at 800-852-2187 to request a form.
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