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Tennessee's medical board sticks with COVID misinformation policy over objection of GOP leaders

The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners licenses roughly 24,000 physicians and has broad authority to investigate complaints, including about unprofessional conduct.
The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners licenses roughly 24,000 physicians and has broad authority to investigate complaints, including about unprofessional conduct.

Tennessee’s board of medical examiners has decided to keep its policy against doctors spreading misinformation about COVID-19. The unanimous vote on Tuesday was the latest volley of a power struggle with GOP leaders.

The powerful Government Operations Committee, led by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, pressured the state’s medical board to take a policy statement about COVID misinformation down from its website. But the move, made in an emergency meeting last month, left some question about whether the oversight board would still investigate complaints about physicians pushing vaccine rumors or promoting unproven treatments.

This week, the board voted to tweak its statement to define misinformation more specifically but otherwise stay the course.

“I think doctors who are putting forth good evidence-based medicine deserve the protection of this board so they can actually say, ‘Hey, I’m in line with this guideline and this is a source of truth,’ ” said Dr. Melanie Blake, board president. “We should be a source of truth.”

The language originally approved in September is part of a broader effort led by the Federation of State Medical Boards. The national association distributed a model statement that was adopted by at least 15 states, including neighboring Mississippi. The nonprofit contends the statement is merely a more COVID-specific restatement of an existing rule: that doctors who engage in behavior that puts patients at risk could face disciplinary action.

The federation is now tracking at least a half dozen legislatures that are considering bills to restrict the authority of medical boards, including Tennessee.

“If a physician who is licensed engages in activity 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,” said Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, FSMB’s executive director. “If you start to chip away at that, where do you draw the line?”

Tennessee passed legislation in last year’s special session meant to keep doctors from being disciplined over how they treat COVID prevention and treatment. Another, broader bill that also prevents pharmacies from interfering with prescriptions to treat COVID, HB1870/SB1880, has been introduced this month.

Since September, Tennessee’s medical board has spent hours debating how to handle interference from state lawmakers. And at their meetings, physicians like Dr. Diana Sepehri-Harvey of Franklin have asked them not to bow to political pressure.

“I have become very concerned during this pandemic about how much reach the politicians have on the sanctity of our medical practice,” she says.

Tennessee’s medical board was looking into nearly 30 open complaints related to COVID as of last month, according to a letter sent to state lawmakers, but no Tennessee physician has faced disciplinary action.

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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