- One-third of COVID-19 related deaths, as of January, were considered preventable had public health recommendations been followed. A new JAMA study has found that over 50 U.S. physicians used social media to advocate against public health recommendations, posting misinformation and disinformation online.
- 81% of the physicians spreading COVID disinformation questioned vaccine efficacy and 77% posted multiple pieces of misinformation, including promoting medical treatments that lacked scientific evidence, disputing mask-wearing effectiveness and conspiracy theories.
- “This study’s findings suggest a need for rigorous evaluation of harm that may be caused by physicians, who hold a uniquely trusted position in society,” the study noted.
COVID has killed at least 1,137,057 people to date in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although physicians have worked to limit the spread of the virus, the JAMA study suggests a vocal minority may be hampering the efforts of others.
During the pandemic, physicians and public health officials struggled to convince some Americans to get the vaccine, particularly in the Southeast. Misinformation was partly to blame, with 72% of healthcare workers blaming disinformation for negatively influencing vaccine decisions in a survey from the COVID States Project.
Disinformation may be coming from family physicians, according to the JAMA study, which found that primary care doctors were most likely to spread disinformation and misinformation. The study also found that physicians spreading misinformation rarely posted on a single social media platform; 75% posted on three or more sites, and 38% posted on five or more sites.
The most common platform was X, formerly known as Twitter, where physicians reached a median of 67,400 followers with a single post.
Nearly one-third of the physicians were affiliated with groups that had a history of propagating medical misinformation, including America’s Frontline Doctors, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Simone Gold, a Los Angeles physician who was arrested during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Peddling misinformation online is an increasingly profitable business, according to the study. America’s Frontline Doctors, for example, profited at least $15 million by marketing a telemedicine service that charged $90 per visit to prescribe debunked hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin treatments for COVID-19.
There were few professional or legal consequences for spreading misinformation on social media, the report found.
No federal laws currently regulate medical misinformation on social media, and state medical boards have penalized only a fraction of cases related to misinformation. A July investigation from The Washington Post found that, of the over 480 misinformation related complaints filed nationwide over the past three years, only 20 physicians had been disciplined thus far.
In some states, the right to spread misinformation is even protected. Florida passed a law in May that prevents professional boards from reprimanding doctors who spread COVID misinformation online, according to the Post, and six other states have restricted the rights of medical boards to discipline doctors for prescribing alternative treatments for the virus.