Home Medical profession Why would Florida protect doctors who give false COVID advice?

Why would Florida protect doctors who give false COVID advice?


This article represents the opinion of the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.

Conservative lawmakers aren’t just fighting with schools, local governments and private employers over sensible measures to fight COVID-19. Today, Republicans in a growing number of states, including Florida, are working to prevent their medical boards from disciplining doctors who peddle quack advice. This is another reckless slide in the politicization of the pandemic, and it threatens both public health and the state’s ability to control the medical profession.

A statement the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners unanimously adopted in September said doctors spreading misinformation about COVID could jeopardize their licensure. But before the doctors could be reprimanded, as Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News reported, Republican lawmakers threatened to disband the medical board. The board voted to remove the statement from its website in response to political pressure, but in late January opted to stick with the policy. “We should be a source of truth,” said board chair Dr. Melanie Blake, who was reviewing dozens of misinformation complaints when the controversy erupted.

This reaction to truth and responsible medicine is not limited to Tennessee. The Federation of State Medical Boards, which created the language adopted by at least 15 state boards, is tracking Republican-initiated legislation in at least 14 states that the national nonprofit organization says undermines the patient safety and public confidence in the medical profession. The federation reported in December that its 2021 survey of members found that two-thirds had experienced an increase in complaints that healthcare professionals were spreading false or misleading information. And 12 state boards had taken action against a licensed physician.

“The staggering number of state medical boards that have seen an increase in COVID-19 misinformation complaints is a sign of the magnitude of the problem,” said Dr. Humayun J. Chaudhry, President and CEO. of the federation.

Predictably, some Republican sponsors defend this professional quackery by hiding behind the First Amendment. In Florida, for example, the Senate bill that would block state medical boards from acting, SB 1184, is called the Free Speech of Health Care Practitioners Act. The legislation would prohibit Florida boards from reprimanding or sanctioning a doctor or even threatening to revoke a license unless a doctor’s advice “resulted in direct physical harm” to a patient under his care over the previous three years. And if a case couldn’t be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the board could be held liable for up to $1.5 million in damages.

This legislation aims to cool legitimate complaints as much as to protect careless medical advice. To assert that physicians have the right to speak freely to dispense dangerous nonsense obliterates the very interest of patient safety and the purpose of regulating healthcare professionals. Do lawyers have the right to lie to their clients, judges and juries? Does the First Amendment allow accountants to cook the books or architects to falsify engineering reports? This question has nothing to do with freedom of expression, but with the obligation of licensed professionals to respect the standards of their industry.

Doctors who tell COVID patients to drink bleach or fluffy worm pills should be called out, not protected from practicing reckless medicine. The damage they cause undermines the profession as a whole and the strength of any public health system.

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Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. To follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinionated news.