Simone Gold isn't alone. NPR found other physicians who retained their licenses despite spreading misinformation online and to the media about effective COVID-19 vaccines and unproven treatments.



Across the country, doctors are working incredibly hard to save lives and try to bring the pandemic under control. But there are a small minority of physicians that are doing something else. They're spreading misinformation. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on the role they're playing in prolonging the pandemic.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Simone Gold made her Twitter debut in a series of short videos posted in April of last year as the coronavirus spread across America.


SIMONE GOLD: Hey. I'm Dr. Simone Gold. I'm a board-certified emergency physician.

BRUMFIEL: Gold looked the part in her white doctor's coat with the words emergency department embroidered on the front. And as she showed her viewers around the grounds of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, she sounded the part, too.


GOLD: It's really quite empty. The streets are empty. The parking lots are empty. The emergency department volume is down. The patient census is down.

BRUMFIEL: Except Gold didn't work at Cedars-Sinai at the time. She was just answering questions from the parking lot.


GOLD: You know, is all this lockdown, like, is it legal? Is it constitutional?

BRUMFIEL: Gold was anti-lockdown. And that together with her medical bona fides got her noticed. She became a celebrity figure, first at California rallies and later by organizing a handful of like-minded doctors from across the U.S. They've done public events like this one on the steps of the Supreme Court last October.


GOLD: Mask mandates are spreading fear and hostility that is changing American culture.

BRUMFIEL: Gold's public messaging and her promotion of unproven therapies eventually got her fired from her job, she says. Now she's doing the lecture circuit.


GOLD: Hi, everybody. Thank you. I'm very delighted to be here.

BRUMFIEL: Speaking at churches and town halls, she spreads fear about the vaccines. And she promotes drugs which have not been proven to be effective at fighting COVID-19, drugs she offers to prescribe her audience in exchange for a $90 telehealth appointment.


GOLD: Don't text me when you've gotten a positive test. I don't want to hear it. I've told you ahead of time to get the medicines. It can take a week because we're so swamped.

BRUMFIEL: Gold is one of a very small number of doctors who are actively promoting views directly contrary to current medical standards for treating COVID-19. Imran Ahmed is chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which tracks vaccine misinformation online. He says even though their numbers are tiny, they're having an outsized influence in spreading misinformation.

IMRAN AHMED: Because they have the Dr. before their name. And they appear to understand what they're talking about. They use the terminology of science and medicine.

BRUMFIEL: Ahmed says their medical degrees may also be helping these doctors skirt social media bans on coronavirus misinformation.

AHMED: We will find that social media companies will hide behind any excuse they can to leave up those people spreading misinformation. And one of the excuses they use is citing their medical credentials.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, while other promoters of misinformation saw their Twitter profiles suspended this summer, Gold saw her followers swell to over 300,000. And it's not just social media. Doctors discouraging vaccination have found regular spots on conservative talk shows like Steve Bannon's "Pandemic War Room" (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The epidemic is a demon. And we cannot let this demon hide.

BRUMFIEL: Bannon regularly interviews a small rotating cast of physicians and holds up their expertise.


STEVE BANNON: You're saying we're in the worst possible situation in which, if I can put it in layman's terms - remember, I got a C or D in my last biology class in prep school, like, my sophomore year.

BRUMFIEL: These appearances are happening against the backdrop of a surge of cases nationwide. And doctors treating those cases are angry.

KENDALL MCKENZIE: There are outliers out there that are preaching nonsense.

BRUMFIEL: Kendall McKenzie is chair of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. While Gold has been giving talks to packed audiences, McKenzie has been dealing with packed ICUs filled with sick, unvaccinated people. He says he sees patients every day being influenced by the kind of misinformation that Dr. Gold and others are promoting.

MCKENZIE: What it's doing is filling up my emergency department with intubated patients and, ultimately, leading to deaths.

BRUMFIEL: But to date, physicians spreading misinformation have faced little if any sanction from the medical establishment. NPR looked at licenses for 16 doctors with a proven track record of promoting misinformation online and in media interviews. All but one had active licenses in good standing, including Simone Gold. The California Medical Board, which oversees her license, told NPR it expects doctors to, quote, "follow the standard of care when treating patients at all times." But it declined to say whether it was investigating Gold, citing confidentiality.

HUMAYUN CHAUDHRY: People assume that licensing boards are on the lookout, they're on the internet.

BRUMFIEL: Dr. Humayun Chaudhry is president of the Federation of State Medical Boards. He says licensing boards weren't set up for this situation.

CHAUDHRY: They actually don't have the resources, neither the money nor the manpower, to monitor sort of what happens on the internet or social media.

BRUMFIEL: These boards are typically a mix of doctors, lawyers and regular citizens. And until recently, malpractice, not misinformation, was their main concern. Boards will usually only investigate if there's a complaint against a physician. Those complaints, by the way, can come from almost anyone.

CHAUDHRY: People don't realize it doesn't have to be the patient themselves. It could be a patient's family member. It could be another doctor. Another licensee can also file a complaint as well.

BRUMFIEL: In late July, the federation encouraged its member boards to take action against doctors promoting misinformation, including suspension or even revocation of their licenses. As for Simone Gold, she has new problems. She participated in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and is facing criminal charges. Gold has pleaded not guilty. Through her lawyer, she declined to be interviewed for this story. But while she's awaiting trial, she continues to give lectures as a fully licensed physician.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "MAIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.