California Approves Bill to Penalize Doctors for Disseminating Misinformation

Trying to strike a balance between free speech and public health, the California Legislature on Monday passed a bill that would allow regulators to penalize doctors for distributing information. misinformation about vaccinations and treatments for Covid-19.

The bill, if signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make the state the first to attempt to legislate to address an issue that the American Medical Association, among other medical and expert groups, argues. has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic, leading to thousands of unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths.

The law would make the dissemination of false or misleading medical information to patients “unprofessional conduct,” subject to punishment by the physician licensing agency, the California Medical Board. That may include the suspension or revocation of a doctor’s license to practice medicine in the state.

While the law raises concerns about freedom of expression, the bill’s sponsors say the far-reaching harm caused by misinformation holds incompetent or unintended doctors accountable. duty.

“For a patient to give consent, they must be fully informed,” said state Senator Richard Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento and a co-author of the bill. A pediatrician himself and a prominent proponent of stronger immunization requirements, he said the law, intended to address “the most severe cases” was deliberately misleading patients.

California’s legislation reflects the growing political and regional divisions that sparked the pandemic in the first place. Other states have gone the other way, seeking to shield doctors from regulatory sanctions, including advocating for treatments involving hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and other drugs that are not available to the public. The American Medical Association said it has not yet been proven.

If enacted, the law could face legal challenges. Governor Newsom, who has three weeks to sign the legislation, has yet to make a public position on it.

Michelle M. Mello, professor of law and health policy at Stanford University.

She notes that even laws that cite “attractive concerns,” such as public health and safety, to police misinformation have the potential to have a chilling effect, a standard of First Amendment for multiple courts.

“Initiatives like this will be challenged in court and difficult to sustain,” she said in an interview. “That’s not to say it’s not a good idea.”

California’s response follows last year’s warning by the National Federation of State Boards of Health that licensing boards should do more to discipline doctors who share false statements. The American Medical Association has also warned that spreading misinformation violates a code of ethics that licensed doctors agree to follow.

The measure is part of a series of Covid-related bills proposed by a legislative working group, which has drawn stiff opposition from lawmakers and voters. Some of the most controversial bills have stalled or died, including one requiring all California students to be immunized.

As the law moved through the Legislature, its sponsors narrowed its scope to directly address the doctor’s direct interaction with the patient. It does not address online or televised comments, although those comments have been the cause of some of the most impactful Covid cases of misinformation and misinformation.

“Inaccurate information spread by doctors can seriously affect individuals with widespread negative impacts, especially through the ubiquity of smartphones and connected devices. Another internet connection on the wrist, desktop and laptop computers can reach thousands of miles away to other individuals in an instant,” the Federation of State Health Commissions wrote in an April report. . “Doctors’ status and titles lend credence to their claims.”

The law would not require the suspension or revocation of a physician’s license, leaving such determinations up to the California Medical Board. It aims to make the dissemination of misinformation about Covid-19 subject to the same rules as other types of “unprofessional conduct” adopted by the board.

The law defines misinformation as untrue information that is “intentionally disseminated with malicious intent or intended to deceive.” Tucked away in sometimes controversial debates about alternative, often unproven Covid treatments, the bill defines misinformation as spreading information that “contradicts current scientific consensus.” times contrary to the standard of care”.

It says doctors have a “duty to provide their patients with accurate, science-based information.” That would include the use of approved vaccines, which have been the subject of fierce debate and political activism around the country, despite a broad consensus among experts. health care about their effectiveness.

A group called Doctors for Informed Consent has opposed the legislation, saying it would silence doctors. The group filed a lawsuit this month seeking an injunction barring the California Board of Health from disciplining doctors based on allegations of misinformation. In its lawsuit, it called the law’s definition of misinformation “hopefully vague.”

In a recent letter to Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, James L. Madara, executive director of the American Medical Association, said misinformation surrounding vaccines has contributed to causing public ignorance and exacerbating the impact of the pandemic.

“The most unfortunate outcome of this is substantial vaccine hesitancy and rejection in some communities and in certain demographics, which ultimately leads to higher rates of severe illness, hospitalization and death from Covid-19 continues to be higher in these populations – the outcome is largely preventable with vaccination,” he wrote.

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