The COVID-19 pandemic has been at the front of our collective minds for nearly three years. Amidst the lockdowns, regulations, and vaccine debates, health misinformation has grown tremendously. For better or for worse, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals have sounded off online and in the press about their personal COVID-19 opinions and recommendations. While the sharing of such opinions isn't exactly new, the stakes couldn't be higher. That's why many medical boards around the country are considering stripping the licenses of doctors who spread COVID-19 misinformation.
While this might seem like a reasonable response to a growing misinformation issue, the plan could backfire. Healthcare practitioners straying from expert consensus is hardly a new phenomenon. Though the views they espouse could be potentially harmful, assigning gatekeepers of misinformation is a challenge in itself. Science is constantly evolving, and what may seem like misinformation now could prove far different in six months or even six years.
Recognizing misinformation is easier said than done. Though the medical community prides itself on being evidence-based, science is in a constant state of flux. With new discoveries and research being revealed each day, it can be challenging to keep up with the latest best practices. COVID-19 offers lessons for us all. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was much debate in the healthcare sphere about whether the pandemic was driven by surface exposure or aerosolized droplets. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, as we now know that COVID can indeed be spread through the air.
This example shows how challenging it can be to even identify misinformation in the first place. Many of the claims that might be considered misinformation aren't necessarily falsehoods. Instead, they're an assortment of data, observations, and speculation. Determining whether an argument is purposefully misleading is often a matter of opinion.
In light of the rise of misinformation, many are urging medical boards to take a stand. The reality is that certifying organizations and medical boards aren't truly equipped to handle such a broad social problem. Values lie at the heart of the misinformation war. Whether a person should opt out of vaccines for their children, for instance, is not a scientific question but a legal or ethical one. The matter simply isn't resolvable with facts.
The act of prosecuting practitioners should always be based on facts, not values. While medical boards certainly face an uphill battle in holding healthcare workers responsible for knowingly spreading misinformation, they must pick their battles. Unless they can show that an individual caused direct harm to a patient, boards will struggle to hold practitioners accountable.
There are also the practical challenges of fighting misinformation to consider. While we assume that licensing boards are on the lookout, they lack the resources to monitor what individual providers are saying online. In the absence of such oversight, holding doctors accountable can be nearly impossible.
We all agree that misinformation is dangerous. Without a thoughtful plan in place to combat it in the healthcare space, though, the remedy may be worse than the disease.
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Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm focus on helping healthcare workers, including doctors and nurses, overcome the challenges associated with the medical field. Call 888-535-3686 to learn how to protect your livelihood from professional license issues.