TV Doctors: Good Entertainment, Bad Medicine

We couldn’t have said it better than the Los Angeles Times: ” Television is great for sports, reality shows and reruns of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ but if you’re getting your health information from TV, you might not be as well-informed – or as healthy – as you could be.”

We would add that you also might be courting harm. See our newsletter, “Those TV News Doctors: Good Advisors or Fear Mongers?”

Whether it’s “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” or “The Doctors,” America can’t seem to get enough of practitioners giving medical advice, especially if they’re dishing dirt on famous people or strutting hunkily in their scrubs. They have medical degrees, they’re confident and articulate, and it’s a whole lot easier to flick on the TV than schedule a doctor’s appointment, and sit in the waiting room 30 minutes beyond the time you were supposed to be seen about your upset tummy.

There’s a problem with seeing doctor TV as an authority rather than entertainment, Dr. Steven Woloshin, professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, told The Times. Sometimes, TV doctors who are accomplished in one field might be discussing topics beyond their areas of expertise or certification.

Dr. Mehmet Oz is a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor of surgery at Columbia University who gained media fame appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show. Photogenic and warm, he inspires responses from his audiences to his advice on how to keep a great head of hair as much as on ability to repair somebody’s heart.

Americans are desperate to lose weight, so nutrition is a frequent topic on these shows. But, “Just because someone’s on TV, just because they’re wearing scrubs, doesn’t mean they’re an expert on nutrition,” Woloshin, a specialist in internal medicine, said.

Oz recently told his TV viewers that coconut oil is a “super food” that “helps you lose weight.” He got all science-y, demonstrating that the fatty acids in coconut oil dissolve easier than the saturated fat in meat. But Christine Tenekjian, a dietitian at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, pointed out that the considerable caloric load of coconut oil would override the modest benefits it might have on metabolism. “We have people who come in with all sorts of misconceptions that they heard on TV,” she told The Times. “They cling to it as gospel.”

In the spring, “The View” aired an episode with Dr. Steven Lamm, who, not coincidentally, was promoting his book, “No Guts, No Glory.” The professor of medicine at New York University championed several probiotic and nutritional supplements from a company called Enzymedica Inc., guaranteeing that “… in three to five years, everyone is going to be on a probiotic, everyone is going to be on a digestive enzyme.”

He said these products are crucial to overall gut health. He must know something nutritional scientists don’t. “There’s no evidence that probiotics improve your health if you take them every day,” Lynne McFarland, a probiotic researcher at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, told The Times.

Some people, such as those with pancreatic disease, are prescribed digestive enzymes. But to pop them like cough drops is simply a fad.

We reported last week how Pinsky was paid by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmith Kline to promote its antidepressant Wellbutrin. Guess who paid Lamm for his consulting services? Enzymedica. Although he told The Times that he has no financial stake in the company’s products, don’t you think TV viewers deserve to know that his advice might have been less than objective?

As publisher of Health News Review, Gary Schwitzer is a frequent critic of shallow health journalism and how it engenders the gullibility of consumers. He said “The View” illustrated another problem with health-as-entertainment – the show’s hosts constantly interrupted Lamm, so even if he had a helpful, coherent message he was given little opportunity to share it. “It’s like getting your health information by listening to people talk on the train,” he told The Times.

Sometimes, nutrition advice purveyed on TV isn’t just questionable, it’s dead wrong. “The Talk” is another daytime talk show directed toward a female audience. Early this year, it fed viewers’ celeb-and-weight-loss lust a segment featuring so-called “celebrity nutritionist” Cynthia Pasquella. She touted apple cider vinegar as “very alkalizing for the body, which promotes weight loss.”

Woloshin begs to differ, noting that all vinegars are acidic, which is the opposite of alkaline. And that even if you could “alkalize” yourself via salad dressing, there’s no evidence that it confers a benefit. Tenekjian agrees, saying no studies suggest that vinegar helps with weight loss.

Then there’s advice to boost your sex life. TV land found the perfect doctor to deliver this information in Travis Stork, the hunky ER doc on “The Doctors.” Last winter he told viewers about a “love potion” called Oxytocin Factor , an over-the-counter version of the hormone oxytocin. The ob-gyn doc on the show, Dr. Lisa Masterson, described oxytocin as the hormone that promotes the bonding of babies to their mothers and of women to their men. She put a few drops of Oxytocin Factor on pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears, who joked, “I feel like bonding right now.”

This isn’t medicine, this is sophomoric posturing. Commented Dr. David Feifel, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, “[The segment] was pretty ridiculous and irresponsible, in my opinion.” He told The Times that real oxytocin can promote bonding when delivered directly to the brains of people or animals, but had “no idea” where anyone got the notion that a few drops on the back of the neck would do anything at all.

A spokeswoman for Nutriceuticals Inc., manufacturer of Oxytocin Factor, said the doctors on the show didn’t use the product as directed; it’s delivered via either nasal spray or oral drops.

Oh, that makes it better.

If you enjoy watching doctors on TV, stick to reruns of “ER,” where you know the stories and most of the medicine is fiction. If you want to see real doctors wearing their scrubs on a TV set rather than in an OR theater, fine-just don’t confuse what they say as medical advice to live by.

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