President O? Let’s first look hard at her role in hyping health humbug

oprah1-go-225x300Oprah Winfrey’s recent rousing broadcast speech — both in accepting an entertainment industry group’s lifetime achievement award and denouncing sexism and sexual harassment in Hollywood — also opened the door to a reconsideration of how this talented, smart, accomplished, powerful, and wealthy celebrity icon long has helped to foster a barrage of health and medical humbug, spreading it far and wide in popular culture.

As Stat, a health and information site, recapped about Winfrey:

She connected a cancer patient to ‘junk science,’ a Washington Post analysis says. She promoted charlatans on her show, according to Slate. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee put out a statement … attacking Winfrey for ‘giving a platform to anti-vaccination campaigners and other dangerous health quackery.’

Winfrey, who has become so well-known that she named her eponymous magazine just “O,” has boosted a roster of dubious characters who claim public attention with their self-pronounced array of expertise on health, medicine, and well-being, including:

  • psychologist Phil McGraw, aka Dr. Phil
  • cardio-thoracic surgeon Mehmet Oz, aka Dr. Oz
  • Deepak Chopra, a onetime internist turned guru philosopher and alternative medicine advocate
  • TV personality and anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy
  • And Suzanne Somers, a seasoned actress and now a celebrity peddler of various nostrums.

The Boston Globe and Stat recently investigated Dr. Phil for holding himself up as a crusader who rescues people from their addictions, even as his show has “put at risk the health of some of those guests it claims to help.

The New Yorker magazine has published a powerful take-down of Dr. Oz, calling him “The Operator” and asking  “Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?” by espousing, loudly and widely, his unconventional and often medically and scientifically unsupported views on a vast array of health topics.

Chopra has been assailed, among others, by physician-scientist David Gorski as one of the major, stubborn “quacks,” “cranks,” and “purveyors of woo” omnipresent in public life, and by Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, as a user of “quantum [physics] jargon as plausible-sounding hocus pocus.”

Author Seth Mnookin, in his book , The Panic Virus, has shredded McCarthy and her evidence-free views against vaccinations, as well as ripping the most notorious anti-vax fabulist Andrew Wakefield. Mnookin has posted online an excerpt from the book about the one-time Playboy Playmate and the public health damage she has caused, including through her exposure via Winfrey’s potent public platforms.

As for Somers, especially her anti-aging and purportedly health benefiting products promoted via Winfrey shows,  she long has been debunked by Gorski and others, including Newsweek journalists Weston Kosova, Pat Wingert, and Barbara Kantrowitz.

But, alas, all these O-supported celebrities retain major public pulling power. They’re all rich and enjoy undiminished attention and success, no matter.

In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I’ve become a big believer in the critical importance of Americans getting the best, most accurate, responsible, and fair medical and scientific, research-based evidence on which to base their health decisions — not to get care based on celebrity hokum. It’s kooky to rush, as social media mavens have, to push Winfrey as a presidential nominee based on a Golden Globes speech, riveting as it may have been, without considering with care her full credentials for the highest office on the planet.

It’s a sign of our dysfunctional times that, even as questions have been raised about Oprah’s medical-scientific acumen and how she uses her influence, that pollsters are testing her voter appeal and the incumbent leader of the free world is reacting to an opponent who is far from contention, yet.

His physicians have said President Trump is in excellent health, so maybe left-field celebrity weirdness doesn’t hike his blood pressure. Americans will be learning lots about the well-being of this one-time TV celebrity as more information is disclosed about the Trump’s annual exam. Such extensive yearly medical check-ups may be deemed unnecessary and wasteful for most of us. They’re part of the job for POTUS and many corporate execs. But could it be that what we Americans need is less a physical exam than to have our  collective heads checked?

Photo credit: Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.
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