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College cautions physician for ‘irresponsible’ social media posts regarding COVID-19

Author(s): Paula Trattner, Aislinn E. Reid, Hannah Kingdom

Mar 8, 2021

In our recent Osler Update, we highlighted some of the risks and considerations for hospitals and healthcare organizations of physicians’ public comments (whether in news or social media) regarding pandemic-related issues. In three[1]decisions publicly released last week, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee (ICRC) found that inaccurate and misleading public commentary by a physician presented a potential risk to public health.

The ICRC has issued three cautions-in-person arising from multiple complaints regarding the physician’s posts on Twitter that were contrary to or challenged public health advice and pandemic-related regulations. In several tweets (and retweets) during the summer of 2020, the physician (a pediatrician with additional training in immunology and allergy) claimed, among other things, that there was no medical or scientific reason for the lockdown as a means of controlling the spread of COVID-19; contact tracing, testing and isolation are ineffective; and a vaccine was not necessary. 

Following its investigation into and consideration of complaints about the tweets, the ICRC determined that the physician was required to attend the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to be cautioned with respect to her lack of professionalism and failure to exercise caution in her social media posts, which the committee described as to be “irresponsible.”

The ICRC found that the tweets presented a “possible risk to public health,” detailing why each tweet was inappropriate, unprofessional or both. The ICRC rejected the physician’s arguments that her tweets were taken out of context and came from a “personal” Twitter account, finding that tweets are necessarily limited in their context and the physician’s Twitter account was publicly accessible and made it clear that she was a physician. Non-medically trained members of the public would “likely have difficulty determining the scientific and medical validity of the [physician’s] tweets.”

The ICRC also found that there is no difference between posting an original tweet and retweeting as both actions indicate an endorsement of the information and the responsibility of physicians to use social media appropriately applies equally in either context.

The ICRC decisions reflect the salience of public commentary by regulated health professionals during the pandemic and the potential public health consequences of misleading information. Although it does not appear that the physician cautioned by the ICRC holds privileges at an Ontario hospital, the decisions reinforce for hospitals and other healthcare organizations the importance of physicians meeting their professional obligations when making public comments, and the consequences (including reputational risk to the organization) of failing to do so.

For more information on any of the issues discussed above, or on other health-related matters, please contact one of the authors.

[1] The physician is appealing two of the decisions to the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board.