A surprising trend among some doctors is harming the American public.
Physicians are sometimes thought to be on the front lines of fighting medical misinformation because they are in the advantageous position of interacting very closely with a wide range of patients. Lately, some physicians have even taken to debunking medical misinformation online, and in some cases, unfortunately, they are even attacked on social media. Some estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 4 physicians who address medical misinformation on social media are attacked in response. Renewed efforts have focused on training physicians to respond in a calm, effective manner when this happens.
But what if the physicians themselves are spreading disinformation? This is actually not as unusual as it might sound. In June of 2022, the American Medical Association deemed it enough of a problem to adopt a new policy. The policy includes measures such as educating physicians to be debunkers of disinformation and educating the American public to recognize disinformation. Many of the action steps in this policy are unfortunately vague, such as “address disinformation disseminated by health professionals via social media platforms and address the monetization of spreading disinformation on social media platforms” and “consider the role of health professional societies in serving as appropriate fact-checking entities for health-related information disseminated by various media platforms.”
The most important provision in the policy has to do with the power of state medical boards to take disciplinary action when doctors spread disinformation. But more needs to be done here: a coordinated effort between states and medical societies like the AMA is needed to identify and have a clear set of disciplinary actions in place for doctor-led disinformation. Some form of surveillance mechanism and set of clear and consistent disciplinary actions for various types of actions involving disinformation need to be established. This process should be led by the AMA. In addition, the general public needs to be better educated about how to spot physician-led disinformation, and, importantly, how to report propagators of this false information to state medical licensing boards. It is probably the case that most members of the American public would not know how to do this.
Importantly, we need more information about the motivation behind the spread of disinformation among doctors and the methods that can be used to control the spread of this information online. As many have noted, a lot of physician-led disinformation can be traced back to just 12 individuals, who are often called the “Disinformation Dozen.” The Disinformation Dozen is responsible for 65% of the false anti-vaccine information shared on social media surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines in particular. While not all of them are physicians, some certainly are and have been peddling false information about vaccines and other topics on Facebook for years while often selling supplements and other products. The question then arises as to why Facebook is only now beginning to take down some of their accounts and why they are taking action so slowly, banning some of them but not all of them. Facebook is probably in the best position to surveil where disinformation is coming from on the platform and should be much more active in banning people who become superspreaders. While many have posited that profit is what is mostly behind the Disinformation Dozen’s and others’ spread of lies about health and medicine, there are probably also potent ideological and political motivations here as well. We should not dismiss the possibility that these may be the primary motives in many cases and that some physicians are leading a coordinated attack on our democratic values and our sense of who and what we can trust.
Finally, what does it mean for physicians and other members of society to become adept at dispelling disinformation? These claims can be quite powerful and are not always so easily “debunked.” We suggest that physicians be trained in various methods of dismantling mis- and disinformation, such as motivational interviewing, prebunking, and inoculation methods. These and other sophisticated methods that exist in the now vast literature on misinformation should be something that all doctors can call upon as they encounter dis- and misinformation online and in the clinic. The AMA should be at the center of this effort as well as efforts to surveil social media for signs of viral disinformation if they are truly serious about doing something about this terrible problem.