Healthcare Regulators Crack Down on COVID Misinformation
Information, misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 has been ebbing and flowing along with the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Many have been engaged in sharing their opinions about the virus, possible treatments and vaccinations, but the regulators of healthcare professionals have taken a keen interest in social media posts that may, in their view, harm public health.
The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee (ICRC) has in three cases found that public social media commentary it considered to be inaccurate and misleading presented a potential risk to public health and imposed discipline on the offending physician.
One physician in particular was the subject of multiple complains from the public related to her activities on Twitter, which included posts such as ““There is absolutely no medical or scientific reason for this prolonged, harmful and illogical lockdown” and “If you have not yet figured out that we don’t need a vaccine, you are not paying attention” and “Contact tracing, testing and isolation.. is ineffective, naïve & counter-productive against COVID-19.. and by definition, against any pandemic.” Other posts that gave rise to other complaints, including a tweeted a message that strongly implied that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) could “prevent, cure and treat early COVID-19” but that the federal government was withholding this treatment from the Canadian public for vague but sinister reasons.
In three separate decisions, all of which are currently under judicial review, the College cautioned the physician for her lack of professionalism and failure to exercise caution in her postings, which was considered to be irresponsible and a possible risk to public health. The ICRC concluded:
The Committee did not accept the Respondent’s position that her tweets come from a personal Twitter account that has no affiliation with her practice. The Respondent’s Twitter biography makes it very clear that she is a physician and also identifies her as the leader of a group of physicians, Concerned Ontario Doctors. The Respondent’s tweets are accessible by the public. Moreover, members of the public who are not healthcare professionals are likely to attribute significant weight and authority to the Respondent’s tweets, given her profession. Non-medically trained members of the public would likely have difficulty determining the scientific and medical validity of the Respondent’s tweets.
On the basis of the above, the Committee decided that it would be appropriate to caution the Respondent in this matter.
The ICRC stated that this was particularly problematic, and “irresponsible and careless in the current context and climate”.
Though some may perceive otherwise, regulated professionals – including healthcare professionals – continue to have professionalism obligations when using social media, particularly when their comments are connected to their holding of credentials and are on a controversial matter related to their profession.