It’s Time for Oprah to Renounce Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz Over Their Dangerous Coronavirus Propaganda
Dr. Daniel Summers writes about the harm these two TV personalities are causing amid the pandemic (on Fox News, naturally), and how one person could put them in their place.
There’s a simple concept I try to teach my kids: If you make a mess, you should be responsible for cleaning it up. It’s a work in progress with them, but we’re hoping sooner or later it sticks.
Of course, this rule doesn’t just apply to small children. All of us should work to remedy problems that are in some part the result of our own actions. Even if we happen to be one of the most famous people on the planet.
Especially if we happen to be one of the most famous people on the planet. The bigger the audience we’ve created for our mess, the greater the obligation to mop it back up.
This means you, Oprah.
Oprah’s role in creating the dual fame of Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Phil McGraw, better known as celebrities without their first and last names respectively, is not a new topic for me. Neither of them would be household names were it not for her. And it’s a problem of increasing seriousness that they are.
While only Oz is an actual medical doctor, the “Dr.” in their professional monikers confers an aura of authority, and it is as authorities that they have been appearing on television to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled and how patients are being treated.
Unfortunately, there is a widening gap between the perception of their authority and their genuine credibility. In the setting of a public health crisis that can get better or worse depending on how closely people adhere to recommendations for keeping it under control, undermining those recommendations poses a threat to everyone’s safety.
The problem of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz is not a new one. Both have prioritized their fame over professional ethics for some time. Dr. Oz is a particular source of ire for me as a fellow physician, because I have to believe that somewhere inside himself he must know that the pseudoscience he all too frequently promotes is wrong.
The stakes are now much higher, and the potential for harm is much greater. If people press for treatments that may do more harm than good, or behave in ways that will expose them to illness they may contract and spread, lives may be lost that could otherwise have been saved. Dr. Oz surely must understand this, yet his troubling conduct persists.
One of the many controversies surrounding potential treatments for COVID-19 is the use of hydroxychloroquine. Whether or not it has a role in managing the illness is an area of ongoing study. What is not controversial, however, is that it has serious potential side effects, and increased demand for the drug may mean shortages for patients who need it for well-established treatment of other diseases. Any possible benefit has to be weighed against these harms. Treatments have been halted in Brazil and France due to cardiac side effects, for example.
Yet Dr. Oz was all too happy to appear on Fox & Friends to overstate the power of the study that got the hydroxychloroquine conversation started in the first place. An academic physician like himself surely understands the limitations that come with small observational studies like that one, yet he went on television to downplay them.
To make matters worse, he appeared yet again on Fox and suggested that the mere 2-3 percent increase in COVID-19 mortality that would come from reopening schools nationwide might be a worthwhile trade-off. (It pains me immensely to defend him, but I do not believe that he was saying 2-3 percent of schoolchildren would die, nor 2-3 percent of Americans overall, as I have seen some say. I believe he was referring to a relative increase in the overall mortality, though this still represents thousands of preventable deaths.) He has since walked back from those comments, but a pattern of troubling behavior is becoming clear.
And then there is Dr. Phil. In an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show (one notes that Fox News is a common factor here), he questioned the need for the extreme social distancing that has been put in place across the country. Displaying a truly staggering degree of obtuseness, he noted that we don’t “shut down the country” to prevent deaths related to causes like cigarette smoking, drowning, or car accidents, and questioned why we should do so in this case.
Apparently, even with a doctorate, one can somehow not realize that different problems sometimes require different solutions. Seatbelts don’t prevent cancer, and a healthy diet won’t protect you from HIV, yet I hope we can agree that they’re still good ideas.
Social distancing is necessary because, in the absence of widely available testing and contact tracing, it is the best tool we have to control the spread of a contagious illness. Weaken it, and the deaths will increase.
Is Oprah directly responsible for any of these recent statements? No. But since the miasma of ersatz authority that still clings to these two is her handiwork, she should consider using her own immeasurable fame and authority to waft it away.
It would doubtless be difficult and probably unpleasant to repudiate people whose careers as public figures she has created, but she is uniquely positioned to do so. Very few people have the wattage to take on Fox, which seems hellbent on promulgating the dangerous notion that the threat from the novel coronavirus has been overblown and we should all return to business as usual as fast as we can. It is using the celebrities she created to lend credence to a plan that could reverse all the gains that have been made in slowing the pandemic.
There is a mess being made. She has the chance, and the obligation, to help clean it up.