“Medicine has a truth problem.” That is the opening sentence of an article published online today in The New England Journal of Medicine, that I coauthored with our Board Chair, Yul D. Ejnes, MD, in which we argue that there must be meaningful consequences for physicians who put patients at risk by spreading medical misinformation.
Claims – for example, that magnets can cure cancer or that children can’t spread COVID-19 – that have no credible scientific evidence have caused lasting harm to the public. It is especially damaging when physicians—viewed as trusted authority figures by most people—act against the best interest of patients and the public by spreading false information. We saw medical misinformation accelerate and proliferate during the COVID-19 pandemic to a disturbing level.
The certification credential you hold differentiates you from doctors who have not demonstrated what you have demonstrated: a commitment to know and be guided by current, evidence-based practice. We have heard from many of you – especially those of you directly involved in caring for desperately ill, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who may have relied on misinformation provided by physicians – that you want your institutions to stand up in support of the evidence-based medicine you practice and the patients you serve. And that is exactly what we are doing.
When ABIM, along with the Boards of Family Medicine and Pediatrics, issued our joint statement last fall warning against the dissemination of misinformation about COVID vaccines, you – the community – responded overwhelmingly positively, with many of you sharing appreciation that your Board was standing up and taking action. That’s why we’re doing this – in support of you, your colleagues and the vast majority of ABIM certified physicians who have been providing patients with the best possible care and information founded in evidence-based medicine.
And while there are not always right answers in medicine, there are certainly some answers that are clearly wrong. When physicians spread information that is clearly wrong, ABIM has a rigorous, fair and confidential disciplinary process in place to deal with unethical or unprofessional behavior.
We clarified last year that the process could be utilized to determine if the tiny minority of ABIM certified physicians that have spread medical misinformation have jeopardized their certification. More recently, I wrote about the core value of certification to the public, and the deep trust patients place in those who hold our certificate.
To help protect patients and ensure our credential represents knowledgeable, expert physicians, our organization must take meaningful steps to address the spread of false medical information on social media. Thank you for doing all you can to share evidence-based information, and for your ongoing support as we collectively try to stem the tide of misinformation causing unnecessary harm to patients.