Tech + Health

06.23.14

It’s Time to Turn Off TV Doctors

From shady business deals to the lust for fame, television doctors are among the last people we should trust when it comes to health advice.

Though many of television doctors’ pedigrees are, in fact, impressive, it doesn’t exclude them from succumbing to the power trip that is the cult of celebrity.

The most recent example is Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose shilling of various ineffective weight loss supplements (namely green coffee) ultimately landed him in a congressional hearing that cost him a fast-vanishing reputation. 

Lucky for us, Oz has a basic understanding of how the law works, forcing him to come clean. He further shamed the empire he’s built with on the record statements against the exact things he’d been uttering on television. To say that Oz is using a white lie to better the public would be letting him off too easy, however.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in their right mind would solicit weight-loss advice from professionals whose primary practice has little to do with nutrition. Let’s be clear about Dr. Oz: He’s first and foremost a cardiatric surgeon. Dr. Phil McGraw, who helped pave the way for Dr. Oz’s path to fame, hawked similarly questionable weight-loss tactics and even enlisted the help of his family in a 2004 weight-loss challenge. And yet, Dr. Phil isn’t even a physician and his psychology license has been retired since 2006. If either doctor is any indication of the judgment of Oprah Winfrey, then it’s finally time to take a hard look at her credibility and friendly word-of-mouth advice as well.

McGraw joined his father’s practice upon receiving his Ph.D in clinical psychology in 1975. He and his father joined forces with Texas businesswoman Thelma Box to begin a series of “Pathways” seminars. Dr. Phil’s advice proved so profitable that he not only yanked material directly from those seminars and splayed them uncredited into his books, but blindsided his father and Box when he sold his stock in the seminars and joined forces with Gary Dobbs to found Courtroom Sciences Inc. (CSI). CSI would be his ticket to Oprah and, thus, fame.

Oprah enlisted the firm’s help during a particularly contentious time in her life—the Amarillo, Texas beef trial, in which Texas cattlemen accused Winfrey and activist Howard Lyman of causing their profits to shrink thanks to a disparaging episode about mad cow disease. CSI not only aided a not-guilty verdict, but netted Dr. Phil an admirer. Oprah so enjoyed his folksy demeanor and words of wisdom that she invited him onto her show. In 1998, he became a regular Tuesday fixture, assisting viewers in relationship issues and offering general life advice. His “Pathways” seminars had been reincarnated and now reached a wider audience—an audience so large that it soon merited its own TV show.

Since its premiere in 2002, the Dr. Phil show has only helped its host fade into his own level of clouded credibility with each passing year. When your show is regarded by a governing board of psychology as little more than entertainment, and thus not a reason to maintain the upkeep of a license to practice, there is little that can be done to repair it.

Though critics question Dr. Phil’s abrasive and sometimes exploitative techniques, it is yet another celebrity psychologist to blame for breaches of confidentiality and gross patient endangerment. Addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky laid bare the worst of addiction on his shows Celebrity Rehab and its spinoff, Sober House. Harrowing detoxes were filmed, crazed escapes were chased, and a trail of dead celebrities followed yet another power grab for Pinsky, who has previously admitted his penchant for narcissism. Pinsky was also privy to payouts for his celebrity, accepting a lucrative consulting gig with Janssen Pharmaceutica.

A trail of dead celebritiesfollowed yet another power grab for Pinsky, who has previously admitted his penchant for narcissism.

CNN’s resident Dr. Sanjay Gupta has found himself in a similar controversy regarding the promotion of Gardasil, a HPV vaccine. Gardasil’s parent company, Merck, has a stake in CNN by way of Gupta’s own AccentHealth, which he co-hosts. It’s a shady partnership that both Gupta and CNN have inadequately failed to address. Gupta was also a frequent guest of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Dr. Phil, seeing Oprah’s success in launching and boosting the television career of medical professionals, delved into the practice himself when he helped launch The Doctors in 2008.

Yet another roundtable show of dissenting opinions, The Doctors was produced by McGraw and his son and functioned as a spinoff of Dr. Phil. Its lineage damned the show from the start, though it still stands as one of the few medical-related shows to include a healthy body of diversity. OB/GYN Dr. Lisa Masterson, whose rants against douching got a lot of attention, was one of the few female doctors of color on television. The cast of The Doctors also draws from The Bachelor; Dr. Travis Stork originally appeared on the dating reality show’s eighth season before taking spokesman deals with Crest, further calling his credibility into question.

But it’s cosmetic surgery that’s done the most explicit harm to The Doctors' already shoddy reputation. Dr. William Groff, a La Jolla-based cosmetic dermatologist, was on the receiving end of a lawsuit claiming a man’s unwanted appearance on the show. Minneapolis resident Tyler Bowling sued CBS after a whirlwind of events marked by Bowling’s reluctance to sign papers. Dr. Groff elected to waive the $4,500 fee to remove Bowling’s penis papules—harmless but unsightly pimple-like bumps—via a laser procedure if Bowling agreed to make an appearance on The Doctors. According to the lawsuit, Bowling was persuaded to sign the papers and eventually appeared on the show, where he not only discussed his condition but also went through with the procedure. Apparently he was not aware that a studio audience would be present, or that the segment would air nationally. According to the lawsuit, Bowling says his appearance on the show ended in “relentless embarrassment and harassment.”

Rarely is it comfortable to be in the audience of a medical talk show, much less appear as a guest. Viewers tune in though, ever more attracted to the mystique of celebrity that prompts good doctors to turn a blind eye toward science, conflicts of interest, and patient comfort as the cameras roll.

Even in the face of multiple lawsuits, Dr. Oz has consistently sat high atop Nielsen ratings, and his show is one of the most watched on daytime television. The Doctors shows no signs of stopping, Dr. Phil is prevalent in reruns and nightly on weekdays, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta will stay CNN’s resident expert, so long as he can help it. Congress may change the course of Dr. Oz’s televised future but as the man puts it himself, there’s nothing better than building people up, even if it means striking down the facts.