The media celebrity doctors are in
AN APPLE A DAY - Tyrone M. Reyes M.D. (The Philippine Star) - June 15, 2015 - 10:00am

Want to feel young and look good?  Click on Dr. Oz’s website.  Seeking an alternative treatment to what ails you?  Visit Andrew Weil’s daily blog.  What to do if your child is being bullied in school?  Ask Dr. Phil.  Society has revered famous physicians and other health professionals for years, swallowing their directives like vitamins.  Dr. Benjamin Spock is one perfect example.  The respected pediatrician helped parents raise their children for a generation.  Even fictional TV doctors, like Marcus Welby, MD, held significant sway in the 1970s, by suggesting to viewers what the practice of medicine should be.

But none of that faith compares to our culture’s current obsession with celebrity doctors.  (In the Philippines, think Dr. Vicki Belo, for example).  Today, fame alone seems enough to make many people trust their health and relationships to men and women they’ve never met.  Unlike a few decades ago, when television and books were the only way media doctors reached the public, we now have multiple channels of media serving them up.  And our growing appetite for health and wellness information fuels our addiction to their advice.

“The impact of social media on the presence of these doctors in our lives is the single biggest difference between celebrity doctors today and those of the past,” says Lisa Gualtieri, professor of online consumer health and Web strategies for healthcare at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.  “If you don’t watch television, their information will hit you on the Internet, on Twitter or Facebook, or when you walk in a bookstore.  The most successful ones have mastered multiple media channels,” she said.

Today’s celebrity docs not only tweet and blog, they also have Facebook fan pages, websites, and best-selling books.  Some have their own TV and radio shows, regular magazine columns and companies that sell products they promote.  Oh, and incidentally, most still practice medicine.  Would-be patients trust them because, well, they’re celebrities!

Medical Journalists vs. Medical showmen

Seeking celebrity advice is not a health habit most doctors would recommend.  “If people have seen these doctors on television, they don’t really care about their credentials; they assume they wouldn’t be on TV unless they’d been screened and given the network stamp of approval,” says Dr. Tom Linden, a psychiatrist and former broadcast journalist who became a professor of medical and science journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“We project onto these celebrities traits, wisdom, and other abilities that they may or may not have,” Linden says.  Yet the reliance on media-savvy medical gurus is understandable, in a way.  The cost of going to the doctor, the limited time patients get for visits, and the increasingly restricted access to specialists have combined to push people away from their doctor’s office and towards the Internet and its panel of celebrity experts, says David Halle, professor of sociology at UCLA.  “The risk is that these celebrity doctors deliver one-size-fits-all medicine.”

Linden says today’s celebrity doctors can be divided into two broad categories:  medical journalists and medical showmen.  “The journalists operate under journalistic principles,” he says.  “The others operate outside the sphere of journalism and are in the world of informational entertainment.”

The great divide

As for what makes a celebrity doctor stand out from his peers,  Gualtieri says it takes more than telegenic good looks and amazing credentials.  Plenty of physicians have those.  The ones who break through have something special, she says.  Working with her graduate students, Gualtieri conducted informal studies on what makes some doctors achieve a strong media presence while others equally well credentialed don’t.

“The ones on the top are good at multimedia, so have a big Internet presence and a big personality.”  They also have the desire and the drive to achieve celebrity status.  On top of that, they deliver information on topics that a lot of people care about — how to live better longer, stay young, be thinner, have happier love lives.  “We latch on to what they say because they have figured out how to capitalize on what we want to hear,” she points out.

But Linden adds that consumers aren’t as aware, as they should be, of the divide between news and entertainment shows. “When information appears on major news media, it is reasonable to assume that the information has been vetted to a much higher degree than if it appears on a TV talk show.  Yet, people assume the two carry weight.  Being on Oprah or Larry King Live is not a stamp of approval for medical or psychological legitimacy.  They’re not news shows.  They’re entertainment.”

Top American celebrity docs

Here’s a sampling of top US celebrity doctors — whether authors, journalists, TV show hosts or all of the above — who are influencing what people eat, how they should live, and how they must behave.

Dr. Mehmet Oz

Claim to fame:  Dr. Oz’s good looks, plain talk and seemingly simple paths to self-improvement won over audiences on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where he first appeared in 2004.  He now has his own TV program, The Dr. Oz Show.

A practicing cardiac surgeon, he wrote a weekly syndicated health advice column with his friend, Dr. Michael Roizen, plus frequent articles in Esquire, Newsweek and O magazine.  Named one of Time’s most influential people in 2008, he churns out a stream of best-selling books.  He used to direct the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Some people say he prefers sensationalism to science and his claims for achieving extreme longevity are unproven and overblown.  Recently, he defended himself against 10 doctors who accused him of promoting “quack treatments” on his TV show.

• Credentials:  He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1982 and has a joint medical degree and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Wharton Business School in 1986.  He is board certified in both general and cardiothoracic surgery and was professor of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

Dr. Andrew Weil

• Claim to fame:  An alternative doctor for those disillusioned by mainstream medicine, Dr. Weil is widely known for promoting integrative medicine, mind-body connections, and herbal medicines.  Founder of Weil Lifestyle, a company that sells his philosophy and products, Dr. Weil also serves as medical director of DrWeil.com, a website that reportedly gets two million hits a month and that features his daily blog.

The balding, bearded New Age guru has written more than 10 books, including several bestsellers:  8 Weeks to Optimum Health, Eating Well for Optimum Health, Healthy Aging, and Why Health Matters.  He writes regularly for Prevention magazine and appears frequently on TV, where he touts his readily digestible beliefs that alternative medicine, good nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction are the keys to a better, longer life.  In 2005, he made Time’s list of most influential people.  Chastised for his advocacy of certain drugs, he has also been criticized for promoting unproved ideas while rejecting evidence-based medicine.

• Credentials:  He received both his bachelor’s degree in biology (botany) and his medical degree from Harvard University.

Phil Mcgraw

• Claim to fame:  Another of Oprah Winfrey’s anointed, he impressed her with his direct, no-nonsense style.  Dr. Phil, a psychologist, was invited by Oprah to appear regularly on her show, passing out hard-hitting relationship advice to an audience who couldn’t get enough of his tough-love recipes.  In 2002, he began hosting his own TV show.  His best-selling books include Life Strategies and Family First.

When he began marketing a line of weight loss products, critics claimed that he lacked the medical credential to recommend the products.  Some in the field of psychotherapy think his one-size-fits-all advice is too simplistic and potentially harmful if audiences extrapolate these pieces of advice to their own lives.

Credentials:  Dr. Phil earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mid-western State University in 1975 and both his master’s degree in experimental psychology and his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Texas.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

• Claim to fame: CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Gupta walks the line between physician and reporter.  A neurosurgeon, he began his media career in 2003 when he went to Iraq to cover medical stories.  In 2006, CBS tapped him to report for CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes.  He later went to CNN.  Today, he appears on his own show, Vital Signs.  He’s written two bestsellers, Chasing Life and Cheating Death.

Generally respected for his medical news reports, he was criticized for his coverage on Haiti, where he treated a 15-day-old baby on camera whose head injury really required only simple first aid.  Others have criticized his endorsement of Merck’s cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil because of financial ties between CNN and Merck.  Recently, however, following the Nepal earthquake, he was reported to have revived a child who developed a cardiac arrest while on board a rescue plane, by applying a strong chest thump that saved the child’s life.

Credentials: A practicing neurosurgeon at Emory University Medical Center and Grady Memorial Hospital, both in Atlanta, he is also an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine.  Dr. Gupta received both his bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences and his medical degree from the University of Michigan, completing the latter in 1993.

Bottom line

The cult of celebrity doctors will continue, for as long as people continue to be obsessed with media-anointed physicians. Just remember though, that there is nothing wrong in receiving accurate, appropriate, evidence-based medical information through media, but fame by itself can never replace personalized medical advice!

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