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How Common Is Medical Misinformation Spread by Physicians?

New data shows that physicians who spread COVID-19 medical misinformation had a broad reach on social media.

Although the number of doctors spreading medical misinformation is small, new data looking particularly at COVID-19-related misinformation reveals that providers have a broad reach with their false claims.

That broad reach could pose an issue when also considering the level of trust physicians have as public health messengers on social media platforms, the researchers out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was an era defined by skepticism and variable adherence to protective public health measures, like masking and vaccination. That skepticism was fueled by many factors, the researchers wrote in JAMA Network Open, not least of which included medical misinformation.

According to a separate assessment, medical misinformation was the culprit for much vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 misinformation has been spread by many people on social medial platforms, but misinformation spread by physicians may be particularly pernicious,” the researchers wrote in the JAMA study’s introduction. “Physicians are often considered credible sources of medical and public health information, increasing the potential negative impact of physician-initiated misinformation.”

Fortunately, that physician-initiated misinformation was rare, the assessment showed. Medical misinformation spread by physicians was done so by a relatively vocal few.

The researchers looked at popular social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Parler, and YouTube) plus popular news sources (The New York Times and NPR) to mine for medical misinformation communicated by physicians between January 2021 and December 2022.

Overall, 52 physicians in 28 different specialties communicated medical misinformation, which reached all regions of the United States. Medical misinformation fell across a few key themes: vaccines, medication, masks, and other topics such as conspiracy theories.

Vaccine misinformation was by far the most common type of medical misinformation that physicians promoted, with 80 percent of the offending doctors peddling false claims that the COVID vaccines don’t work.

Around half (53.8 percent) of physicians peddled conspiracy theories, and 51.9 percent made false statements about treatments. Three-quarters of the physicians spread misinformation in more than one category.

The researchers pointed out that the misinformation that physicians spread was not dissimilar to the misinformation that other people posted. However, it should be noted that doctors play a key role in public health messaging because of their trusted role in guiding their patients’ health.

At the start of the vaccine rollout, numerous surveys showed that doctors were the most trusted messengers for vaccine information. Surveys indicated that doctors should be tapped to encourage vaccine access, but doctors who post misinformation about vaccines have the opposite effect.

The JAMA study did show that statements of medical misinformation may have had somewhat of a reach, the researchers said. Around four in 10 (38.5 percent) physicians posted misinformation across five or more platforms.

Twitter was the most used communication platform, with 71.2 percent of offending physicians using the social media site to spread medical misinformation. The median follower count was 67,400, representing a significant messaging reach.

This study is a key step forward in understanding how physicians propagate medical misinformation, but the team indicated that there’s little path forward in ending the practice. Some entities, like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have made calls to end medical misinformation, but there’s no formal pathway to regulating professional speech.

“Factors such as licensing boards’ lack of resources available to dedicate toward monitoring the internet and state government officials’ challenges to medical boards’ authority to discipline physicians propagating misinformation may limit action,” the researchers said.

“Twitter’s elimination of safeguards against misinformation and the absence of federal laws regulating medical misinformation on social media platforms suggest that misinformation about COVID-19 and other medical misinformation is likely to persist and may increase.”

To be clear, there is a serious contingent of physicians who have expressed their dismay at the spread of medical misinformation online, regardless of the source.

In April 2023, a survey on behalf of the de Beaumont Foundation showed that three-quarters of doctors are finding medical misinformation to be an issue. Medical misinformation is having a spillover effect on the clinic, with 44 percent of physicians telling the survey that half of the information their patients bring in is false.

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of physicians said it is on them and their peers to combat medical misinformation about the spread of COVID, the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, other vaccines, off-label use of drugs like hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID, and the efficacy of masks.

As for the physicians peddling medical misinformation online and in the news, respondents to the de Beaumont Foundation poll said there should be consequences: 85 agree with a warning for a first offense, 73 percent endorsed a fine for a second offense, 70 percent agreed with a temporary loss of license for a third offense, and 63 percent agreed with a permanent loss of license for a fourth offense.

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