Why did the ABIM issue a statement on the dissemination of misinformation?
BARON: According to the Surgeon General of the United States, “health misinformation is a serious threat to public health.”1 On July 29, 2021, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) released a statement that “physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license.”2 Their statement was issued in response to the growing dissemination of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation by physicians in social media.2 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), misinformation is defined as “false information shared by people who do not intend to mislead others,” while disinformation is defined as “false information deliberately created and disseminated with malicious intent.”3
ABIM leadership agrees with the FSMB that physicians possess a high degree of public trust that gives them a powerful platform for communicating with the public. As indicated in the FSMB statement, physicians have “an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health.”2 As indicated in the joint statement from the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM), ABIM, and American Board of Pediatrics (ABP), “spreading misinformation or falsehoods to the public during a time of a public health emergency goes against everything our boards and our community of board certified physicians stand for.”4
What are the key points of the statement released by the ABFM, ABIM, and ABP on September 9, 2021?
BARON: The ABIM fully supports the FSMB statement and wants board certified physicians to know that such unethical and unprofessional conduct may prompt the board to take action against a physician’s certification.4 In the midst of this awful pandemic, board-certified physicians have a responsibility to give people the most accurate and timely information available. When overwhelming evidence indicates that vaccines against COVID-19 are safe and effective, it is unacceptable to denigrate vaccinations.
How will ABIM distinguish between dissemination of misinformation and expression of a dissenting point of view?
BARON: We recognize that medical history is full of stories about physicians who challenged a prevailing point of view. Our statement is not intended to prohibit discussion of legitimate questions about the evolving evidence on COVID-19. However, we expect board-certified physicians to refrain from disseminating information that is factually incorrect (misinformation). No physician should disseminate information grossly inconsistent with reasonable interpretation of available evidence. If a physician wants to express a dissenting point of view, it should be done in a context that explains the reason for dissent relative to an accurate depiction of the relevant evidence.
What should SGIM members do to overcome misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines?
BASS: First, we encourage members to listen carefully to their patients’ questions and concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines, recognizing that they may be reacting to unreliable sources of information. Second, we urge members to engage with the communities they serve to build trust in the advice we give as physicians, as discussed by SGIM’s Past President, Dr. Jean Kutner, in the webinar she gave in June 2020 on “Dispelling Disinformation in the Time of COVID.”5 Third, we recommend that members explore opportunities to help their colleagues and trainees strengthen skills in addressing misinformation with their patients. At SGIM’s last Annual Meeting, for example, an excellent workshop presented a novel approach to countering online misinformation about a COVID-19 vaccine. Lastly, we should support the ABIM and the FSMB in their efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation in our profession.