Conspiracy theories among physicians - what to do?

The spread of fake news and conspiracy theories has been a growing problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if questionable theories are spread by members of the medical profession itself?

Medical conduct should be based on scientific experience

The spread of fake news and conspiracy theories has been a growing problem not only since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, videos or statements on social media or questionable news sources are often used to discredit medical or expert scientific opinions. But what if questionable theories are spread by members of the medical profession itself?

The phenomenon of "conspiracy theories" is probably as old as human history itself and spans an almost limitless spectrum, from the justification of disease outbreaks or events that are difficult to comprehend, to the deaths of significant personalities, to major historical events. The Corona crisis and its accompanying restrictions also weigh heavily on minds globally. While most people seem understanding, there is also scepticism and criticism - as well as conspiracy theories and the belief in "dark forces" behind it all. But what can be done when such theories or false information are spread by health professionals? The Medical Association of Schleswig-Holstein (Ärztekammer Schleswig-Holstein, ÄKSH), among others, has given this issue some thought.

For this reason, the ÄKSH has published a statement entitled "Acting in concert - on dealing with sceptics and deniers in one's own ranks" (original document only available in German here). The clear consensus in the letter: There should be no exclusion of doctors who think differently, but dangerous medical action should not be tolerated. Prof. Henrik Herrmann, President of the Schleswig-Holstein Medical Association, explains: "Doctors are free citizens [...]. They are therefore free to express and represent their opinions. However, personal opinion has no place during patient contact, in the practice or in the hospital. Here, medical action must be based on scientific experience."

Infection chains can only be broken together

What is particularly critical about the spread of conspiracy theories among parts of the medical profession is that such action has a double negative effect: on the one hand, the relationship of trust between doctors and patients is permanently disturbed by untenable statements. On the other hand, the work of convincing large parts of the medical profession during the Corona crisis is undermined by insecurities and sowing doubts. This could put people's health at risk. Cohesion is particularly important now. "With between 15,000 and 18,000 people infected every day, it is important that everyone contributes to breaking these chains of infection," said Prof. Herrmann.

The State Medical Association of Baden-Württemberg (Landesärztekammer Baden-Württemberg) also reports similar problems (original article only available in German here) with individual conspiracy theorists: "These doctors express themselves, among other things, by declaring COVID-19 to be harmless and questioning current research on the virus and the meaningfulness of vaccinations." In some cases, this even goes so far that some representatives of the health system spread the belief in "dark forces" that are allegedly behind it all. For the majority of doctors in the country, this is an imposition - especially against the background that they themselves are exposed to an increased risk of infection every day and experience the dangers emanating from COVID-19 at first hand. It is also alarming, as has already happened in Baden-Württemberg, when the usefulness of anti-corona measures is questioned by health professionals holding political office: Here, two doctors exchanged certificates in order to exempt themselves from the obligation to wear masks in the state parliament. Prof. Herrmann sees such behaviour as problematic: "If I now also do not protect myself, if I refuse masks, and have patient contact, then of course I also have the possibility that I can pass on the pathogen, even if I have no symptoms of illness at all - and of course the other way around."

Debunking misinformation with evidence

So how should sceptics and corona deniers be dealt with in the health sector? According to Prof. Herrmann, sceptics who are willing to talk can be convinced with scientific arguments. When dealing with deniers, however, the most important thing is to remain calm and persevere. "We must not tire of refuting misinformation with evidence." Legal steps would also be possible if the Medical Association were informed of concrete facts and violations of professional law.

Together with leaders of the medical self-administration and representatives of science, the ÄKSH has also formed an alliance against Corona deniers (original document only available in German here). The head of the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (Kassenärztliche Vereinigung) in Schleswig-Holstein, Dr Monika Schliffke, as a representative of this alliance, also sees a problem in the media's over-representation and focus on the relatively small group of Corona deniers and conspiracy theorists. Here Prof. Herrmann also agrees: "There are relatively few who are Corona sceptics or even deny Corona. However, these are of course particularly noticed by the public, they are present on social media and thus seem to shape the image a bit."

In addition, especially with regard to COVID-19, where many questions are still unanswered, health care representatives must also once in a while admit gaps in knowledge to patients and colleagues, says Dr Schliffke. "I can also admit as a doctor that I don't know certain things yet because they are still open." Only as a united society can we manage to confront the Corona crisis, emphasises Prof. Herrmann: "Only together can we achieve this feat and positively influence the course of the pandemic. As medical profession and as citizens. Let's keep our distance together, observe hygiene rules, wear everyday masks, use the Corona App as well as ventilate regularly."