Legislation would punish doctors who spread COVID misinformation

Samira Felix
Staff Writer

Assembly Bill 2098, proposed last month by Assmeblymember Evan Low, D-San Jose, would make it easier to declare COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation as unprofessional conduct for physicians and surgeons.

According to the bill, the misinformation and disinformation can include false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment, and the development, safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

Should this become law, the Medical Board of California and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California would be able to discipline physicians and surgeons who spread COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation to the public. 

“Disinformation and misinformation has resulted in the deaths of countless Californians and Americans. If they had followed scientifically proven COVID-19 mitigation measures, that could have saved their lives,” said Edwin Kirby, spokesman for Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a co-author of the bill. Equipping the medical boards of California with the tools to hold unethical licensees accountable will help lessen the spread of disinformation and help save lives.”

Sharon Davis, professor of sociology, explained that it is unfortunate that the state has to pass a law because some people do not use their positions of power and authority appropriately.

“Historically we have tended to rely on our experts for their expert and honest advice,” Davis said. “Doctors have been among the most celebrated and prestigious positions that we have in society. It is unfortunate that it has gotten to this point where we need a law to remind people to be honest and unbiased, which they are supposed to do if they have taken the Hippocratic oath to be doctors.”

Kathy Duncan, professor of management, said that this bill is overkill and it makes her worry about physician independence on other topics in the future. 

“Unfortunately, there are many physicians who give out incorrect information about a variety of things and there are existing sanctions for those who do,” said Duncan who also has a healthcare background. “I’m not sure why someone thinks COVID needs to be broken out separately at this time. It also seems a bit late in the game. We are most likely coming to the end of the worst part of COVID soon.”

Jason Neidleman, professor of political science, said that he agrees with this bill, but he thinks the sanctions associated with disseminating the misinformation needs to be properly calibrated. 

“When you are going to regulate freedom of expression, you have to be particularly careful that you define as precisely as possible what constitutes an offense because there is no right that is more core to liberal democracy than freedom of expression,” Neidleman said.

“This is not an easy issue, you want to approach it very hesitantly, but in these kinds of  clear cases where public health is being undermined by self interested factors who are conflicted I do think we have to identify cases where it is appropriate to apply the law,” Neidleman added.

The Medical Board will investigate complaints made by members of the public against licensed physicians which can take years and is reviewed by physicians and experts, Kirby said. 

According to the bill the Medical Board would have to consider if the medical professional strayed from the standard line of care, if they intended to mislead or harm others, if an individual declines COVID-19 prevention or treatment that is not related to their medical history or condition due to what they were advised by the licensee, or if the misinformation or disinformation was contradicted by scientific studies before they discipline physicians and surgeons. 

Kirby said that after an investigation is complete the Medical Board will follow progressive disciplinary actions. These disciplinary actions can include a strong warning and guidelines or restrictions one or more times before more serious actions are taken, except in the most outrageous cases. 

“This isn’t threatening them with jail time, this is threatening their license to practice medicine for direct and demonstrable violations of the oath that they take to protect the health of the public,” Neidleman said. 

For more information on AB 2098, visit the California Legislative Information website.

Samira Felix can be reached at samira.felix@laverne.edu.

Samira Felix, a junior journalism major with a concentration in print-online journalism, is news editor for the Campus Times. She previously served as a staff writer.

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