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Fights over the role of state medical boards

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The pandemic is spawning fights about the proper role of state medical boards, the agencies that license and discipline doctors. Some are trying to stop doctors in their states from spreading COVID misinformation. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are pushing some of those same medical boards to back off. Blake Farmer of WPLN in Nashville explains what's going on.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: State medical boards have an obligation to investigate complaints about doctors. And inquiries are serious business, almost like putting a physician on trial. The issue could be overprescribing painkillers or unprofessional conduct, like sleeping with patients.

Spreading false information about medical care, COVID-related or otherwise, is also fair game, says Dr. Humayun Chaudhry. He leads the Federation of State Medical Boards.

HUMAYUN CHAUDHRY: If a physician who is licensed engages in activities that causes harm, the state medical boards are the ones that historically have been set up to look into the situation and make a judgment about what happened or didn't happen. And if you start to chip away at that, you know, where do you draw the line?

FARMER: He says the pushback is concerning. The federation put out a statement in the middle of last year reminding physicians that spreading COVID misinformation could jeopardize their license to practice. At least 15 state medical boards adopted their own version.

Tennessee's Board of Medical Examiners was one of them. Dr. Stephen Loyd is vice chair.

STEPHEN LOYD: I'm very glad that we're taking this step. And if you're spreading this willful misinformation, you know, for me, it's going to be really hard to do anything other than put you on probation or take your license for a year.

FARMER: Loyd gave examples of doctors on the internet spouting verifiably false rumors, like there's a microchip in the COVID vaccine.

LOYD: I mean, there has to be a message sent for this. It's not OK.

FARMER: The vote was unanimous - debate minimal. Then the letters started coming - not from doctors, but GOP lawmakers. One chairs a committee with the power to dissolve Tennessee's state agencies and threatened to do so.

Representative John Ragan demanded that the statement be taken off the website. He says there are reputable physicians with conflicting views on COVID treatments and vaccines, but his objection is more technical, about the proper rulemaking process.

JOHN RAGAN: If you're going to say that physicians can have their license revoked for misinformation and disinformation, you have to tell them officially.

FARMER: The full Tennessee Legislature ended up passing a law aimed at restricting the medical board's authority on how physicians treat COVID. North Dakota has, too. And now Republicans in more than a dozen state legislatures have proposed similar laws, but there haven't been that many doctors actually disciplined for spreading misinformation. Many who push fringe treatments still have their licenses.

Georgia's medical board signed on to the anti-misinformation statement but has yet to sanction anyone. Dr. Debi Dalton, the board's chair, says the statement is mostly a reminder to generally follow the consensus.

DEBI DALTON: Not just jump on the newest information that's popped up on social media. We expect physicians to think ethically, professionally and with the safety of patients in mind.

FARMER: If anything, vocal physicians are pressing boards to resist political pressure. Diana Sepehri-Harvey is a family doctor in Tennessee.

DIANA SEPEHRI-HARVEY: I have become very concerned during this pandemic about how much reach the politicians have on the sanctity of our medical practice.

FARMER: Tennessee's medical board did pull down its COVID misinformation statement from the web, as ordered by lawmakers. But in recent weeks, the panel vowed to keep investigating specific complaints, saying it's up to them, in spite of interference, to be a source of truth.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Blake Farmer is WPLN's assistant news director, but he wears many hats - reporter, editor and host. He covers the Tennessee state capitol while also keeping an eye on Fort Campbell and business trends, frequently contributing to national programs. Born in Tennessee and educated in Texas, Blake has called Nashville home for most of his life.