By Nicolas Cital
New legislation (AB 2098) signed on September 30 by California Governor Gavin Newsom has made it illegal for doctors to spread misleading or false information about COVID to patients. The hope of this new legislation is to keep physicians from spreading fallacies surrounding the risks, prevention, and treatment of coronavirus. The punishment for doctors spreading any kind of misinformation would include having their medical license stripped away from them.
On a personal level, I feel that the purpose of the bill is praiseworthy. Misinformation has continued to be a problem as COVID continues to be researched and new discoveries and changes to guidelines are made. The bill itself cites that “some of the most dangerous propagators of inaccurate information” are healthcare professionals, which is justifiably concerning. However, I can also sympathize with some of the medical practitioners that are worried about the vagueness of the wording surrounding misinformation in the bill.
The bill itself defines misinformation as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care.” Some take issue with the fact that new information continues to grow and develop, and guidelines continue to be reviewed and changed as this new information is discovered. The only clarification that the bill provides about misinformation is that very statement: anything “contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care.”
Physician Leana Wen gives her own opinion of the bill in her Washington Post article that helps encapsulate the concerns that some have. She worries that the bill— though well-intentioned— will have negative consequences on medical practice that could result in worsened patient care.
She further expands on this by acknowledging that “knowledge about prevention and treatment continues to evolve.” The worry they have surrounds how “physicians need to tailor broad public policy guidelines from the CDC to their individual patients.”
She went on to provide an example of a concern about the bill, explaining that while some doctors would recommend seniors to get the Omicron booster immediately, others might tell them to wait until winter for better protection on the holidays. This advice, although reasonable, would contradict federal guidelines and make it possible for the doctor to be punished for committing a transgression.
Doctor Nick Sawyer acknowledges the skepticism that some have surrounding the bill. However, he points out that “the Medical Board of California still has yet to exercise its authority to discipline doctors using the existing statute.” He goes on to cite the Federation of State Medical Boards, which shows that there have been many state-proposed bills that seem to have no problem with providing COVID information that have been disproven.
While it is very important to hold doctors that wilfully spread misinformation accountable for their actions, it cannot be forgotten that the information we have about COVID continues to grow and evolve as time passes. I still firmly believe that the bill should continue to be in effect. Simultaneously, however, there also ought to be discussion concerning further parameters that clarify what misinformation is punishable.
While it can be very easy to think about the kinds of misinformation that should be prevented from being spread, situations like Wen’s hypothetical scenario complicates an issue that seems to at first have a very simple solution. It’d be nice if we could live in a world where we can always present the facts— and only the facts—about something so concerning as COVID. But that’s not our reality. Time will only tell what kind of consequences and benefits this new legislation will have on the medical world.