Doctors giving false information about COVID can face discipline with a new bill

Governor Gavin Newsom He has until the end of the month to sign or veto a bill that would make California the first state to allow regulators to penalize doctors who give patients false information about COVID-19 But what critics say would be a free speech nightmare.

State law already prohibits doctors from violating accepted standards of medical care by lying to patients or mistreating them for any illness — including COVID-19. Doctors who do this risk being disciplined by state medical boards or losing their license altogether.

AB2098 by Society member Evan Lo, D.C. Campbell, specifically invokes COVID-19 and will modify the definition of unprofessional behavior to ban physicians from giving patients “false or misleading information” about the coronavirus – including its risks, prevention, and treatment – and about its “development, safety, and efficacy.” COVID vaccines.

The bill was passed through the state legislature last month and will take effect on January 1. Newsom did not say if he would sign it.

Low describes his bill as “not worth publishing” because “the California Medical Council already has the authority to regulate licensees. So we’re not doing anything unusual here.”

In normal times, that might be the case. But the bill itself points to the unusual COVID policies that led to the legislation.

The bill notes that the COVID prohibitions are critical because vaccine misinformation and outright lies have “weakened public confidence and put lives at grave risk.” He notes that the disease has killed 6,000,000 people, including nearly 90,000 Californians, and that “some of the most dangerous advocates of inaccurate information” are the doctors themselves.

Enforcement will be up to the California Medical Board, which licenses doctors and can discipline them. But chasing down doctors will be difficult unless the state gives the board more freedom to examine medical records without patient consent, according to the board. AB2098 Analysis. Most complaints about doctors misinforming about the coronavirus come from the public, not the patient. Without the patient’s consent, the analysis said, “the board would not be able to determine the patient’s records for a subpoena,” or justify why a subpoena for investigation was needed.

Lawmakers ignored the board’s request to include an “enhanced medical record examination authority” in the bill. However, the board voted to support the bill and agreed to try again for more inspection rights if it became law.

Critics oppose AB2098 on the grounds of free speech. If Newsom signs it, they say, California will become the arbiter of what can be said privately – the Ministry of Truth.

“The idea that the state has the power to restrict what a patient’s healthcare professional advises, is an Orwellian one. We don’t do that in the US. They do it in China,” said Rick Jaffe, a lawyer. lawsuit The California Medical Council on what it says are the board’s broader efforts to restrict what doctors can say about COVID in public. (The board declined to comment.)

“The next fight is AB2098,” Jaffe said, adding that he had heard from supporters across the country wanting to help.

Last year, the National Federation of Government Medical Councils got into the fray when this happened Doctors warned Whoever spreads false information about COVID risks losing their license.

Some countries responded by moving opposite direction And trying to protect doctors’ ability to say what they want about COVID and even prescribe bogus treatments. North Dakota law, for example, allows doctors to prescribe antiparasitics Ivermectin, which sent a lot of people to poison control centers After false claims spread about its powers as a treatment for the Corona virus. In Tennessee, lawmakers have ordered their state’s medical board to remove a warning from its website for doctors not to provide false information about COVID.

In California, Kristina Lawson, president of the California Medical Council, reported in December that she was “followed and confronted” by a group of doctors under investigation by a congressional committee for promoting false information about COVID and selling disinforming treatments online.

For Senator Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, co-author of AB2098, efforts to curb COVID lies, especially from trusted clinicians, are a public health priority in the COVID era, monkeypox and the The re-emergence of polio.

“Infectious diseases are making a comeback,” Weiner said.

“When I was growing up, it was not known that someone would not be vaccinated against whooping cough or measles,” he said. Now, we see a deliberate campaign by people not to vaccinate their children. COVID poured a lighter liquid on it.”

“There is a special place in hell” for doctors who mislead or lie to their patients, said Dr. Sima Yasmi, an expert on medical misinformation and director of the Health Communication Initiative at Stanford University.

Throughout the pandemic, she said, people have often been calling her to talk to their friends or relatives who are getting bad information about COVID from their health teams — and they believe it.

In one case, I spoke with a woman who was distraught because her husband was in intensive care with COVID and was not getting better. He was being treated with hydroxychloroquine – a medication badly needed by people with conditions such as lupus. Without scientific backing, President Trump has promoted the drug for use with COVID, and some doctors are experimenting with it for this purpose, even though it has been found to be dangerous for those infected with the Corona virus.

This is a creation shortage of this drugcausing a serious problem for people who actually need it.

Yasmin said the domino effect showed how misinformation and lies from doctors can bypass their patients.

She rejected the idea that preventing doctors from spreading lies about COVID would restrict their right to free speech.

“This is not a concern for any well-meaning physician practicing evidence-based medicine,” Yasmin said. “We swear to do no harm and to protect our patients. Central to that is the obligation not to spread false information.”

Nanette Asimov is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: nasimov@sfchronicle.com Twitter: Tweet embed

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