Seeking to strike a balance between free speech and public health, the California Legislature on Monday passed a bill that would allow regulators to punish doctors for disseminating false information about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. .
The legislation, if signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would make the state the first to try to legislate a remedy to a problem that the American Medical Association, among other medical groups and experts, says has worsened the impact of the pandemic, resulting in thousands of unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths.
The law would designate the dissemination of false or misleading medical information to patients as “unprofessional conduct,” subject to punishment by the agency that licenses physicians, the Medical Board of California. That could include suspending or revoking a doctor’s license to practice medicine in the state.
While the legislation has raised concerns about free speech, the bill’s sponsors said the great harm caused by false information required holding incompetent or ill-intentioned doctors accountable.
“For a patient to give informed consent, they have to be well informed,” said state Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat who co-authored the bill. A pediatrician himself and a leading advocate for stricter vaccination requirements, he said the law was intended to address “the most egregious cases” of deliberately misled patients.
More about misinformation and falsehoods
The California legislation reflects the growing political and regional divisions that have dogged the pandemic from the start. Other states have gone the other direction, seeking to protect doctors from punishment by regulatory boards, including for recommending treatments involving hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and other drugs that the American Medical Association says are yet to be tested.
If enacted, the law could face a legal challenge. Governor Newsom, who has three weeks to sign the legislation, has not yet taken a public position on it.
While other nations have criminalized the spread of vaccine misinformation, and have higher vaccination rates, the U.S. government and state response has largely been limited to combating misconceptions with accurate information said Michelle M. Mello, a professor of health law and policy at Stanford University.
He noted that even laws that cited a “compelling interest,” such as public health and safety, for police disinformation risked having a chilling effect, a First Amendment standard for many courts.
“Initiatives like this will be challenged in court and will be difficult to sustain,” he said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.”
California’s response follows a warning last year from the National Federation of State Medical Boards that licensing boards should do more to discipline doctors who share false claims. The American Medical Association has also warned that the spread of misinformation violates the code of ethics that licensed doctors are committed to following.
The measure was among a series of Covid-related bills proposed by a legislative task force that drew fierce opposition from lawmakers and voters. Some of the most controversial bills have stalled or died, including one that would have required all California schoolchildren to be vaccinated.
As the legislation moved through the Legislature, its sponsors narrowed its scope to directly address physicians’ direct interaction with patients. It does not address comments online or on TV, even though those have been the cause of some of the most shocking cases of Covid misinformation and disinformation.
“The inaccurate information spread by doctors can have pernicious influences on people with widespread negative impact, especially through the ubiquity of smartphones and other Internet-connected devices on wrists, desktops and laptops reaching thousands of people. kilometers to other people in an instant,” the Federation said. of state medical boards in a report in April. “The status and titles of the doctors lend credence to their claims.”
The legislation would not require the suspension or revocation of a physician’s license, leaving such determinations to the Medical Board of California. The spread of false information about Covid-19 is intended to be subject to the same rules as other types of “unprofessional conduct” assumed by the board.
The legislation defines disinformation as falsehoods “deliberately spread with malicious intent or with the intent to deceive.” Delving into the sometimes contentious debates over alternative, often unproven, Covid treatments, the bill defines misinformation as the dissemination of information “that contradicts contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care.” ”.
It says that 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 across the country, though there is broad agreement among medical professionals about their efficacy.
A group called Doctors for Informed Consent opposed the legislation, saying it would silence doctors. The group filed a lawsuit this month seeking an injunction preventing the Medical Board of California from sanctioning doctors based on allegations of misinformation. In his lawsuit, he called the legislation’s definition of disinformation “hopelessly vague.”
In a recent letter to Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, James L. Madara, CEO of the American Medical Association, said misinformation around vaccines had contributed to ignorance among the public that had worsened the impact of the pandemic. .
“The most unfortunate result of this has been significant vaccine hesitancy and rejection among certain communities and within certain demographic groups, ultimately resulting in continued higher rates of severe illness, hospitalization and death due to Covid-19. 19 in these populations, outcomes that are largely preventable by vaccination. ” he wrote.