A group of white-coated physicians calling themselves “America's Frontline Doctors” lined up on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to talk about COVID-19 and hydroxychloroquine on July 27, 2020. Their leader, Simone Gold, MD, JD, said, “If you've gotten the disease, there's treatment.”
At that time, there was no proven treatment for the virus.
Dr. Gold, an emergency physician, was board certified from Nov. 15, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2020. She has not met the current requirements for maintenance of certification, according to American Board of Emergency Medicine records. She warned that physicians who knew about the treatment (described by her colleagues as hydroxychloroquine and two other common medications) were being silenced. Dr. Gold was later arrested at her Beverly Hills, CA, home on Jan. 18, 2021, in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She was indicted Feb. 5. (Department of Justice. https://bit.ly/3nYapgu.) She pleaded not guilty to counts of entering a restricted building, violent entry, and disorderly conduct, and was released on her own recognizance.
Parallel pandemics have bedeviled the United States since the first cases of COVID-19 were recognized. As cases and deaths surged, so did the misinformation, and those false statements gained credibility when they came from physicians.
The American Board of Emergency Medicine (ABEM) issued a statement Aug. 26, 2021, to counter that, warning physicians it certified that spreading misinformation violated ABEM's Code of Professionalism that requires physicians to “refrain from conduct the Board determines, in its sole judgment, to be sufficiently egregious that it is inconsistent with the ethical behavior by a physician.”
A Professionalism Issue
“There was no single event that prompted the release of the statement,” said Marianne Gausche-Hill, MD, the president of ABEM, the medical director of the Los Angeles County EMS Agency, and a professor of clinical emergency medicine and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles. “There were several incidents where physicians, leveraging their Board certification status, said somewhat outlandish things to the public, such as masks create dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide and that mRNA vaccines can alter DNA.”
ABEM posted its newly developed Code of Professionalism in April 2021. (https://bit.ly/2ZXMp5p.) “It became clear on social media that other physicians found misinformation to be a professionalism issue,” she said, adding that ABEM's statement clarified how egregious information could violate that code. She said ABEM would not publicly comment on any physician under review for a potential violation of misinformation.
“Several physicians and several members of the public have complained about unprofessional behavior, including misinformation. ABEM also monitors social media platforms, and is aware of concerns that physicians have expressed about misinformation,” she said. “ABEM reviews concerns using a deliberate process that involves assessment by clinically active emergency physicians,” adding that ABEM could withdraw certification “in situations where a physician promulgates egregious and blatantly false information that degrades the social contract that emergency medicine has with the public and damages the value of ABEM certification.”
Such withdrawal would include due process for the board and physicians, including the ability to appear, she said. “ABEM is prepared to defend the strength and integrity of ABEM certification,” Dr. Gausche-Hill said.
Joel M. Geiderman, MD, a chair of the emergency department of Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, agreed with the ABEM statements. “Emergency physicians have become trusted by the public because of the hard work of a lot of people over a long period of time,” he said. “This trust is important so that people will put their welfare in the hands of people they do not know. ... [W]hen it comes to medicine, it is not about beliefs, it is about what science shows us through the scientific method and statistical analysis, i.e., evidence. Progress against the pandemic seems to have stalled, and I think those who spread misinformation contribute to this.”
Dr. Geiderman said patients who balk at vaccination often depend on false information. “We should try to correct that but not be coercive,” he said. “Spreading information that is unproven or denying vaccines and masking and other proven measures hardly promotes quality and integrity. Loss of certification is certainly an appropriate first step in curbing irresponsible physician behavior.”
The American Board of Medical Specialties supported ABEM and other organizations in opposing COVID misinformation in the media and online. (Sept. 13. 2021; https://bit.ly/3jYF5NJ.) Other groups also issued statements about the harmful effects of misinformation, including the Federation of State Medical Boards, which warned that promoting misinformation could put a physician's license at risk (https://bit.ly/3GHP5ER), said the American Board of Pathology (Sept. 3, 2021; https://bit.ly/3wkDAyf), and the American Boards of Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics in a joint statement. (Sept. 9, 2021; https://bit.ly/3BOLf9m.)
The American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine also issued a stinging rebuke to two emergency physicians who extrapolated their clinics' experiences with COVID to minimize the effect of the pandemic. (April 27, 2020; https://bit.ly/3bINwYI.) They “jointly and emphatically condemn[ed] the recent opinions released by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi. These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical society and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer-reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public's health.”
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Ms. SoRellehas been a medical and science writer for more than 40 years, previously at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, The Houston Chronicle, and Baylor College of Medicine. She has received more than 60 awards, including the Texas Human Rights Foundation Award. She has been a contributor to EMN for more than 20 years.