When Doctors Spread Misinformation, Can Anything Be Done?

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A man asks his doctor a question while pointing at his diagnosis on the tablet.
Photo: SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images

Earlier this week, yet another Covid-19 misinformation video went viral. (Here’s a great debunker of the subject matter.) What was especially disappointing was that, yet again, the people in the video are men and women with medical degrees — many practicing physicians. The Medium Coronavirus Blog spoke this week to Arthur Caplan, founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine, about whether anything can be done when doctors spread clear misinformation.

Ultimately, there’s not very much to be done swiftly, besides hoping that platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook do their part to moderate the spread of misinformation. But Caplan says there are a few tangible things that individuals can do if they see deliberate misinformation spreading by physicians. Here are his three pieces of advice:

  1. Communicate with the doctor directly if you can. Caplan says if your own provider is sharing information that doesn’t seem right, ask them about it. “You can say, ‘I see you’re not wearing a mask. It doesn’t seem consistent with what I believe is accepted medical knowledge, please let me know why you are doing that,’” Caplan suggests.
  2. Complain to the state medical association. “You should,” says Caplan. “Say, ‘I think this doctor is not wearing masks and I think you should take action.’” Caplan says it’s also important to include links to evidence, like the website where the medical professional in question is sharing false or dangerous information.
  3. Consider filing a complaint with the state’s medical licensing board. Caplan says individuals can argue that “the physician is putting people at risk by giving people [false] information, and I think you have to investigate.” Caplan says it is the job of the board to investigate, but that they are slow, which is an unfortunate aspect of the regulation process.

There’s also a more immediate role that institutions, rather than individuals, can take if they are affiliated with the doctors making dangerous claims. “I think institutions should distance and disaffiliate if there are people giving false and dangerous information,” says Caplan, adding that medical institutions tend to merge frequently, and hospitals and large practices may be unaware of who is using their…

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Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that