LOS ANGELES — Starting in January, a new law, AB-2098, will make spreading misinformation related to COVID-19 in California grounds for physicians to lose their medical licenses.
But some doctors, including Dr Monica Gandhi, associate chief of HIV infectious diseases and global medicine at UCSF, worry it doesn’t consider how quickly that information and data changes.
“This virus has been studied more than any other infection in history with 87,000 papers published on COVID by Feb. 2021, so information is changing all the time," she said.
Dr. Gandhi maintains this is already the job of the California Medical Board, which will investigate a physician that does not apply the standard of care to the treatment of a patient.
“We already have a way to adjudicate doctors following the standard of care, so this is like an extra layer that the California Senate wants to introduce,” said Gandhi. “But in the middle of a pandemic, for some Senator to say that they know best, and they could adjudicate all these thousands of articles and decide the absolute truth on every aspect of COVID, is not true.”
For example, Gandhi said, official guidance on masking has severely evolved during the pandemic.
The CDC first dismissed the value of masking to prevent the spread and transmission of COVID-19. Later they touted the benefits of face masks calling it “the most important, powerful public health tool we have.”
Now the CDC has circled back to saying cloth masks do little to prevent the spread of covid.
Dr. Gandhi said this is one example of how the data has changed.
“It was considered misinformation for me to tell a patient to wear a cloth mask, say, a year ago, and now I’m supposed to tell them not to wear a cloth mask,” she said.
AB-2098, which has been endorsed by the California Medical Association, defines misinformation as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care.”
While Gandhi admits there is some misinformation that is black and white, like the studies done confirming the ineffectiveness of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, she said there is also a lot of gray out there as well.
She’s worried that the law could discourage physicians from talking with patients about the rapidly changing virus.
“Treatment and prevention is part of the day-to-day interaction between a patient and a doctor. Behind closed doors you have frank conversations addressing that patient’s concerns, acknowledging where they’re worried. And that is a very private, confidential, intimate space between patient and provider. And if you think that that’s going to be adjudicated at every level by a state Senate as opposed to a medical board, then I think that there will be a chilling effect on doctors giving them their frank opinion about what they think about different treatments.”
Five doctors filed a lawsuit saying AB-2098 is unconstitutional and goes against their 1st amendment right to free speech.
The ACLU joined that group of doctors, agreeing that AB-2098 is inconsistent with the First Amendment.
Whatever the outcome, Gandhi hopes patients will continue to have open conversations with their health providers.
“I hope that that’s how doctors get to be with their patients, not just through this COVID pandemic but for antihypertensives or for anti-cholesterol medications or for HIV medications. There’s not always one truth about which regimen to use. It’s always been like that in medicine and I’m worried that someone’s trying to create blunt ways to decide how every aspect of COVID should be practiced,” she said.
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