Even as countless health care workers put themselves at risk and display courage, professionalism, and compassion in caring for Covid-19 patients, a growing collection of colleagues are showering themselves in shame, showing that the credential M.D. may stand for master of dubiousness or Ph.D. is someone whose nonsense is piled high and deep.
As the folks at the HealthNewsReview.org warned a “desperate public,” too ready to embrace self-promoting doctors and others because they are hungry for purported expertise as a pandemic sweeps the globe:
“Beware these red flags: partisan and hyperbolic language and hawking of unproven treatments that seem too good to be true. Seek solid advice from longtime public health institutions: the [federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention] and the World Health Organization. Understand that because this disease is novel, information is rapidly changing and often tenuous – uncertainties that can be exploited for fame and fortune.”
The problematic pontificators include longtime celebrity “caregivers”: Drs. Oz, Phil, and Drew. Two are M.D.s, both with accomplishments in their fields (Mehmet Oz and Drew Pinksy). Phil McGraw is a psychology Ph.D. All three long ago carved out major careers in broadcasting, putting themselves in positions where celebrity, notoriety, and social media “chatter” about themselves can only be beneficial.
And they — and others, including a Houston M.D. and hormone therapy advocate and a New York family doctor — have put themselves front and center in storms of condemnation for proffering extreme and counter-factual views. These utterances create more than controversies because they feed fears and play into the hands of politicians and fringe theorists.
The curious can search online for the unacceptable claims from these “experts” — repeating them here does a disservice. But it is worth noting that Oz and Drew both have walked back their Covid-19 comments. Drew, who made his name for his expertise in substance abuse and reaching out to young people who might not have taken to traditional mental health care, was much more recondite in saying he was wrong, early on, in dismissing the potential severity of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Oz has hedged still on his comment about the “appetizing opportunity” to re-open schools, based, he asserted, on his reading of a British study that suggested that move “may only cost us 2% to 3% in terms of total mortality” — which “might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”
The cardio-thoracic surgeon, vice chair still of the surgery department at Columbia University’s medical school, was lambasted for the remarks, with social media and other commentators demanding to know if Oz wanted to hand pick the two or three children among, say, 100 in an elementary school that he would “consider” for a Covid-19 death.
He has said he “misspoke,” and wanted to emphasize the importance of schools to kids’ well-being. But critics assailed Oz, noting that this was but the latest episode in a long record of how he has bent medicine as a “discipline to the dictates of entertainment in pursuit of ever more celebrity, ever more power, and has warped and cheapened it in the process.”
As the Washington Post reported of the doctor:
“Oz, 59, who also hosts his own syndicated daytime show, has long been a popular and controversial figure, facing criticism for comments he’s made about everything from vaccines to the Ebola virus. He even endured a congressional grilling in 2014 for pushing questionable weight-loss programs and calls for his firing from Columbia University’s medical school in 2015 by physicians who said Oz has ‘repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine’ … Columbia rejected the effort to oust him, saying his commentaries were protected by academic freedom. Oz’s enormous popularity and celebrity may bulletproof him from the kind of professional discipline that might deter a lesser-known doctor. Writing in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics in 2017, three Mayo Clinic scholars questioned whether Oz has essentially become too big to be brought to heel. ‘Should a physician be allowed to say anything — however inaccurate and potentially harmful — so long as that individual commands market share?’ wrote Jon C. Tilburt, Megan Allyse and Frederic W. Hafferty. ‘Dr. Oz certainly appears to be someone peddling unproven and ineffective remedies for personal gain. It would seem like his is a paradigmatic test case for professional self-regulation in medicine. Yet, he remains immensely popular, prompting us to wonder, if we can’t effectively sanction Dr. Oz, whom can we sanction?’”
Oz has found adoring audiences for his pronouncements on Fox television, which itself is under heavy fire for its zealous and fact-bending support of President Trump. The dubious broadcast backing has included support for early assertions that the novel coronavirus was no worse than the flu and a partisan “hoax” designed to harm the administration and the GOP or that the Chinese or WHO must be blamed for the pandemic. Oz has pushed the president to endorse questionable off-label prescribing of anti-malarial drugs for Covid-19, with scant evidence of its effectiveness.
McGraw leaped into the fray, again on Fox, pushing back on public health experts recommendations to reduce the harms of the pandemic by getting Americans to stay at home, keep physical distance among themselves, and adopting other safeguards like vigorous hand washing and wearing face masks in public. He said the isolation harms people’s mental health and listed other common causes of Americans’ death (in road crashes, in swimming pools, and from the seasonal flu) and loudly said the nation isn’t locked down for these.
While taking in this popular mental health advisor’s comments, it also may be worth taking stock of the speaker — an entertainment figure who projects a down-home, Texas folksy persona even as he has become a celebrity plutocrat with a long trail of lawsuits and controversies, particularly of his dealings with troubled stars and affluent patients with serious problems needing major care. He long ago gave up his license in Texas and is careful to walk a line, so as to not have his advice be mistaken for formal clinical care. McGraw is taking a shellacking for his remarks, particularly because the numbers he cited as facts have major errors.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
Covid-19 is a novel infection, and because it has sickened millions and killed tens of thousands around the globe with such speed it has stirred emotions and created fears in many. This is a time, though, for all of us to be wary and skeptical, judging facts and evidence carefully and to our best capacities. We can get more savvy about protecting ourselves from medical bunk.
This includes pushing down our gullibility and predisposition to trust experts with little question. But what are these individuals’ qualifications to offer life-and-death counsel? As the New York Times noted, with little controversy, doctors themselves have made clear that their practices have become highly targeted, such that specialists, pulled in exigent circumstances into suddenly providing infectious disease care to Covid-19 patients, have been candid about their professional struggles.
Simply earning an M.D. or a Ph.D. in one area does not, like something out of the Wizard of Oz, confer great and transferable wisdom or expertise in another field. If patients would hesitate to undergo complex heart surgery by an ear-nose-and-throat specialist, or balk at having a psychiatrist handle the treatment of advanced cancer, shouldn’t they be cautious about TV talking head-docs’ views on epidemiology and public health? If you wouldn’t let a Ph.D. economist tell you how to fix your family’s only car, or ask a Ph.D. in astrophysics to cook an elaborate dinner for 10 guests, why would you put the lives of your elderly parents or children — or yourself — in their hands with health commentary? Why are people listening to a non-practicing dermatologist who wants young people to have Covid-19 infection parties, or allowing the medical director of a nursing home to experiment with frail elderly residents infected with the coronavirus?
This is no disrespect to highly trained and expert caregivers, especially those who are frank and thoughtful about their human limits. It is, instead, an alarm that we should all heed about the noisiest practitioners who pop up at moments of distress — whether for the ego stroke of self-promotion or the ways that they may benefit, financially or by reputation (which, in turn, can add to their bottom line). When this health nightmare is under better control — due to careful, rigorous science, fact, and medicine — we have many questions to answer about the mis- and dis-information that has spread, like a sickening virus, with grievous risk to us all.