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Science

A doctor spread COVID misinformation and renewed her license with a mouse click

Dr. Lee Merritt is a orthopedic and spinal surgeon who spreads misinformation about COVID-19. She is affiliated with a prominent right-wing group known as America's Frontline Doctors.
Dr. Lee Merritt is a orthopedic and spinal surgeon who spreads misinformation about COVID-19. She is affiliated with a prominent right-wing group known as America's Frontline Doctors.

For much of the pandemic, Dr. Lee Merritt has appeared on talk shows and in lecture halls to spread false information about COVID-19.

Among her claims: that the SARS-CoV2 virus is a genetically engineered bioweapon (the U.S. intelligence community says it's not). And that vaccination dramatically increases the risk of death from COVID (data show an enormous drop in risk for those who take the vaccine). The entire pandemic, she says in public lectures, is a vast global conspiracy to exert social control.

And yet, in October, she was able to renew her medical license in the state of Nebraska. Documents obtained through a public records request by NPR showed it took just a few clicks: 12 yes-or-no questions answered online allowed her to extend her license for another year.

Critics say that Merritt's renewal is another example of how the nation's state medical boards are failing to protect the public from a small minority of doctors spreading COVID falsehoods.

"State medical boards, for the main part, have been cozy clubs of people who feel their job is to protect the profession," says Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that tracks vaccine misinformation online.

In the past, that's meant a slow process that provided physicians every opportunity to defend themselves against a complaint, he claims. But in the current pandemic, Ahmed argues, medical boards need to move faster and with more force. "Speeches aren't enough, letters aren't enough, we need action now," he says.

Doctors have been trusted sources of medical advice throughout the pandemic. Experts believe the handful who spread misinformation are fueling vaccine hesitancy.
Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
Doctors have been trusted sources of medical advice throughout the pandemic. Experts believe the handful who spread misinformation are fueling vaccine hesitancy.

A dangerous message

Few people have been more influential over the course of the pandemic than doctors. They have been at the front lines, battling COVID and facilitating the vaccine rollout. Public health officials also see doctors as a major tool in fighting misinformation. Officials encourage vaccine-hesitant individuals to talk to their physician, as a way of combatting the vortex of false claims and conspiracy theories online.

But a handful of doctors like Dr. Merritt have worked contrary to these efforts: spreading bad information about COVID-19. Their qualifications make their message especially dangerous, says Nick Sawyer, an emergency room doctor who heads No License For Disinformation, a group seeking action against doctors who spread falsehoods.

"Physicians should be held to a higher standard because people are entrusting us with their lives," he says.

The licensing of physicians in the United States varies from state to state. Medical boards are typically set up under state law and populated with a mix of doctors, lawyers and citizens. The boards can receive complaints from any member of the public. They then investigate and carry out disciplinary action according to their own rules and the laws of the state.

License renewals are often automatic, and Sawyer says he wants that process to be as smooth as possible. But he is also frustrated by the lack of disciplinary action: "If you're a physician in good standing, then you should be able to continue your practice without having to jump through a bunch of hoops," he says. "But that is also assuming that the medical board is doing its job."

Spread of misinformation is not censured

So far, it appears that many physicians spreading bad information have escaped censure. In September, NPR looked at 16 doctors who have spread false claims about COVID, including Merritt. Records show that none have been disciplined, and all but one continue to hold an active medical license. And Dr. Merritt was not the only one who obtained a renewal.

Public records obtained by NPR show that Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, another prominent anti-vaccine physician who claims — among other things — that vaccines make people magnetic, renewed her license online. The Ohio Capitol Journal first reported Tenpenny's renewal in September.

Neither Dr. Merritt nor Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees its medical board, responded to NPR's request for comment. But Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, the president of the Federation of State Medical Boards, an umbrella group, says medical license renewals are designed to be simple for doctors.

"It's a procedural step that is usually automatic and not even deliberated upon by the board," he says. He says boards simply don't have the capacity to review many hundreds or thousands of renewals that come up each year, and that a failure to renew would be equivalent to a license suspension, which cannot be done without due process. But he also says the renewals do not prevent boards from taking action.

"A medical license that's automatically renewed does not mean that an investigation isn't ongoing, nor does it prevent a board from taking a disciplinary action against that licensee," he says.

In fact Chaudhry says a recent survey by the federation found that over half of the nation's medical boards have seen an increase in complaints about doctors disseminating false information about COVID-19. Among those who responded to the FSMB survey, he says 21% have already taken some kind of disciplinary action. Many others are now quietly investigating complaints, Chaudhry says. They just need more time to act.

In the meantime, Lee Merritt continues to travel the country, giving speeches filled with junk science.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.