Celeb Docs Failed Us During COVID. Let’s Leave Them in 2020 Where They Belong.
TV’s celeb docs led people astray during the pandemic. Now that Dr. Drew has COVID, Dr. Summers writes that we should take it as a reminder to stop listening to these stooges.
There are so many things I am looking forward to returning to in a post-COVID world.
I miss my patients being able to see me smiling at them. I miss having a reason to wear an outfit other than scrubs. Having erred very much on the side of safety, I miss all the places I’ve avoided for almost a year. I cannot wait to go back to my gym, my barbershop, and most of all, my favorite dance club.
But there is one thing this pandemic has shown us we can do without from the before times. Let us be done forever with celebrity doctors, medical or otherwise. For television stars of shows (current or former) with “Doctor” in the title, it’s been a year of rampant clownery.
Take, for example, Dr. Drew Pinsky.
Dr. Drew, as he’s been called in the names of various shows he’s been on, first rose to fame in the ‘90s as co-host of Loveline on MTV, on which he dispensed advice about sex alongside Adam Carolla. He went on to star in various rehab-themed shows, which is consistent with his practice as a physician focusing on treatment of substance-abuse disorders.
Things have been taking an unfortunate turn with Dr. Drew for a while now, however. He has a long history of ethically shady payments from pharmaceutical companies and weight-loss services. He also feels far too comfortable offering televised diagnoses of people who weren’t his patients, including then-candidate Hillary Clinton. As a fellow physician, I find this kind of diagnosis from afar of a person you haven’t spoken to or examined extremely inappropriate, and contra Pinsky’s self-justification, it doesn’t make any difference how long the person doing so has been a doctor.
Most recently, he’s come under fire for initially poo-pooing the severity of the novel coronavirus or the seriousness of the spreading pandemic, waving it away as media hysteria. While he did later issue an apology, using his medical credentials to pronounce with authority on a topic outside his specialty in contradiction to experts whose field it actually is was inexcusable.
He is now recovering from COVID-19 himself. Given how many people still fail to take seriously the threat the pandemic represents, perhaps his own illness will convince people who took to heart the cavalier skepticism he once displayed on FOX News and missed his apology on social media.
Of course, no account of medical doctors sending their tattered credibility up in flames during the pandemic would be complete without mentioning Dr. Oz.
For anyone who has somehow missed his face smiling from check-out aisle magazine covers, endorsing various bullshit weight-loss regimens, the cardiothoracic surgeon-cum-daytime television host of his own eponymous show has spent the latter part of his career blasting to smithereens the respect he earned during the former. You don’t join the staff of one of America’s best hospitals without a track record of excellence, yet at this point there isn’t a flavor of snake oil the man won’t shill.
The last year has been no exception. Oz was one of those overstating the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID. He did this in contradiction to our nation’s top public health experts, despite having no particular expertise in epidemiology or infectious diseases himself. All reliable evidence about hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID shows it does more harm than good.
Pinsky and Oz are given space to air their erroneous statements in the media because of the miasma of fake authority their medical degrees create around them. In so doing, both of them show just how hollow their credibility has become.
Of course, not all TV doctors with hollowed-out credibility are medical doctors. There’s also Dr. Phil McGraw.
McGraw, or Dr. Phil as his show calls him, is a clinical psychologist with his own history of professionally questionable television antics. What really set him apart this year, however, was an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show on FOX, in which he argued against a lockdown to halt the spread of the pandemic. His reasoning? That we don’t shut down the country over deaths from car accidents, drownings, or cigarettes, so why should we over COVID. COVID, unlike those other causes of death, is something you can actually catch from someone else.
It was a statement so blockheaded it should win some kind of award.
On the other side of the coin, the pandemic has made household names of a handful of doctors, most notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as Dr. Deborah Birx, who has headed the White House’s coronavirus response team, and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control. Their celebrity is of an entirely different kind. Whatever criticisms one may have about their roles in handling the pandemic, they are famous for doing their jobs. It’s not their job to be famous.
The same cannot be said about Pinsky, Oz, and McGraw, America’s hat trick of ersatz professional authority. At this point, in the manner of all celebrities, what concerns them most is staying famous. If that means appearing on FOX and waving around their doctorates in service to the network’s agenda of undermining our nation’s public health experts, then that’s what they’re clearly all too happy to do.
Telling an audience what it wants to hear is anathema to ethical behavior for healthcare providers. We often have to give unwelcome information, sometimes have to tell patients that prescriptions or tests they want are clinically warranted, or simply admit we don’t have a clear answer to pressing questions. It’s challenging work, and it doesn’t really make for good television.
What matters to America’s celebrity doctors is making good television. This year, when medical authority has been denied, twisted, and eroded from the Oval Office on down to your nearest maskless shopper, prioritizing good television has been demonstrably bad for our country. Let the pandemic be the ignoble capstone on their troublesome careers. I am more than ready for both to be over.