TV Doctors Like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil Hand Out Bad Medicine (Column)

Analysis: TV physician, heal thyself! Celebrity doctors should defer to medical correspondents in the midst of pandemic

Dr Phil Dr Oz Coronavirus Controversy

Some TV doctors seem to be ignoring the real-world Hippocratic oath.

In recent weeks, a trio of popular dispensers of lifestyle advice – Drew Pinsky, Mehmet Oz and Phil McGraw – have appeared on media outlets or via digital video downplaying the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, with remarks that undermine their credibility and urge people to take steps that could cause harm. Pinsky in sundry February and March appearances suggested to followers that the coronavirus would be “way less virulent than the flu.” Oz told viewers of Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” in a guest segment earlier this week that having children go back to school might be “appetizing” despite the fact it could potentially help spread the contagion.

Backlash to the appearances was so severe that Pinsky apologized, noting his comments were “incorrect.”  Oz this week admitted that he “misspoke.”

McGraw appeared Thursday night on Fox News Channel’s “The Ingraham Angle,” ostensibly to speak about mental health. But he reached beyond his expertise. He called for the nation to get back to normal life, noting that the United States does not close to prevent automobile accidents or swimming-pool deaths – a statement that ignores the fact that coronavirus is highly contagious and could spread more quickly if citizens are sent back to their normal routines without appropriate cautions being taken.

In a video posted Friday, McGraw said that “we need to safely, responsibly, follow the science and get back to our lives as soon as possible.” He added: “I don’t mean to say that we need to just run back out there and start pretending that nothing has ever happened. I don’t mean that at all.” He acknowledged his use of auto accidents and swimming pool accidents were “bad examples”

Despite the walk-backs, the appearances have generated substantial concern. “This is quite appalling,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. “These folks are celebrity entertainers, not infectious disease scientists. They’re outside their area of expertise, and frankly don’t know what they’re talking about here.”

Medical correspondents are a regular staple of any national TV-news outlet’s line-up, but Pinsky, Oz and McGraw are not that.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, ABC News’ Dr. Jennifer Ashton, CBS News’ Dr. Jonathan LaPook and NBC News’ Dr. John Torres work as journalists and are beholden to research and data – and are on staff to help translate current medical findings to viewers who lack medical training.  “Those kinds of correspondents are valuable. As doctors, they know how to navigate the media world,” says Ben Bogardus, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. “They may not be experts in virology or epidemiology, but when they talk to people who are they can understand it better and can translate it for the viewer.” Fox News Channel has in recent weeks added medical contributors Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins and Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a medical director at CityMD, an urgent-care provider.

McGraw is a former psychologist. Pinsky is an addiction expert and internist. Only Oz, who is affiliated with Columbia University, has credentials that would give him the provenance to discuss the current pandemic with any sort of authority. At the same time, he has over the years come under scrutiny for endorsing products and medical theories whose benefits at the time had yet to be accepted by authorities. A 2013 article in The New Yorker observed that he had on his syndicated program promoted such things as raspberry ketones and green coffee beans, even though the benefits he cited for each were debatable.

The question of expertise is paramount at a moment when TV-news programs and cable-news networks are reaching thousands of new viewers. Millions of Americans are hunkered down at home and craving up-to-the-minute information about their health and the strength of the country’s economy. That means more people are watching individual news programs and are more familiar with news topics when clips of those programs surface on social media.

“The information we all get on TV news is literally a life-and-death matter during this pandemic, so the more we hear from public health experts and qualified medical professionals the better,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “The trouble with TV doctors like Oz, Pinsky and Phil McGraw, is that their credentials have more to do with their performance as TV hosts than with their knowledge as medical professionals.”

He added: “I don’t remember Judge Judy being a regular network guest during the impeachment trial, so I’m not sure why Drew, Phil or Oz would be go-to experts on Covid-19.”

At the same time, Oz and McGraw are at the center of substantial businesses operated by some of the nation’s biggest companies. They may not be the most credible physicians when it comes to dissecting a pandemic, but they certainly seem to be. Oz’s “Dr. Oz Show” is distributed by Sony Pictures Television and seen often on TV stations owned by Fox Corporation. McGraw’s “Dr. Phil” is a cornerstone of the syndicated offerings from ViacomCBS.

No amount of TV exposure, however, is equal to knowledge of the nuances of a global disaster. There’s no cure for coronavirus at present, but the obvious prescription for some of the popular TV doctors is this: Make a referral to a more experienced colleague.