Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Dr. Drew: do no harm (unless it is good for ratings)
Doctors on reality television can spread misinformation with impunity. Can anything be done about this? Center director Jeffrey Cole explores the issue.
By Jeffrey Cole
Imagine a visit with a clinical psychologist: you share your anxieties, fears, and deepest concerns during an hour-long appointment. During the session, the highly-trained therapist introduces you to books, television programs, online services and other for-profit ventures — either owned by himself or members of his family, or in which he has a significant financial stake. Then, in the last ten minutes, the therapist’s wife comes out to sell her own expensive personal care products.
Although you might want to report this type of unprofessional behavior to the accrediting associations, it is just a typical day on the Dr. Phil television show.
Change the channel — when Dr. Oz is asked a serious medical question for a physician, he repeatedly pushes non-traditional homeopathic remedies, untested and controversial diet supplements, and weight loss products. Just another day on The Dr. Oz Show.
Things don’t get any better over on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s assortment of Dr. Drew television programs.
We don’t let just anyone become a physician or psychologist. To practice requires extensive post-graduate education, internships and residency, as well as participating in continuing education throughout a career and meeting the highest standards of state accreditation and ethics.
Such hurdles are necessary because unprofessional doctors or psychologists can cause immense physical or mental damage resulting in death from malpractice or suicide. A successful television doctor (as all three of these are) can reach millions of people at a time.
If anything, the standards to “practice” on television where patients cannot be followed or personally evaluated should be even higher than for those who see patients in hospitals or private practice. A successful therapist may see 500-1,000 patients in a career. Dr. Phil reaches as many as five million viewers each day.
And yet, to “practice” on television requires no credential at all.
Dr. Phil is usually the number one or two highest rated syndicated program on television. Phil McGraw earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of North Texas and became well-known by offering weekly relationship advice on The Oprah Winfrey Show (after helping Oprah ward off a lawsuit from Texas beef farmers).
The segment soon became so popular that McGraw began his own syndicated show in 2002, produced by Oprah’s Harpo Studios. Very quickly the show became wildly successful, and Dr. Phil was one of the most familiar faces on television frequently appearing on talk shows and as a guest on TV series.
From the beginning, Dr. Phil became a family franchise. With his son Jay, McGraw produced other television shows including The Doctors. Together, the two wrote a diet book. They also started Doctors on Demand, a for-profit telehealth service offering immediate access to physicians. On his own, Jay McGraw—who has only a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a JD—has written a series of books on life strategies for teens. Dr. Phil’s wife, Robin, launched her own lifestyle and beauty brand: Revelation.
All of these television programs, books, and other businesses are prominently featured on the flagship Dr. Phil show. Frequently, guests in need of advice are whisked off the program after 50 minutes to reserve the last part of the show for Robin to spotlight her personal care products.
With so much academic training and professional experience in television, you would think these television doctors would have met the moment during the COVID Pandemic. They could have tackled COVID head-on, dispelling myths about how the virus spread and offering reliable advice on social distancing, masks, and vaccines. Sadly, the reverse was true. Rather than supporting the efforts of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, all three of the television doctors used their extraordinary platforms to spread misinformation.
Even though McGraw earns an estimated $80 million each year, the pace of hawking his other products and services has only accelerated. By 2006, his businesses were so firmly established that Dr. Phil saw no need to renew his professional credentials.
Mehmet Cengiz Öz earned an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After a distinguished medical career, he also began a highly successful television career through his relationship with Oprah Winfrey (a one-woman syndication incubator). After appearing for five seasons on Oprah as a health advisor, in 2009 Oz began his own syndicated program. Although not as successful as Dr. Phil, The Dr. Oz Show has been consistently popular for 12 years.
Almost from the beginning, Dr. Oz stirred controversy with his televised medical advice.
While touting his traditional medical credentials, Dr. Oz promotes pseudoscience offering alternative medical advice, often with no scientific foundation. He has become infamous for promoting diet supplements and weight-loss programs with no evidence to support their effectiveness.
In 2015, ten physicians from well-regarded hospitals and medical schools called on Columbia University (where Oz was the vice chair of the Department of Surgery) to sever their relationship with Oz, an effort supported by 1,300 doctors.
Earlier this month, Oz’s appearance as guest host on Jeopardy as a possible successor to the legendary Alex Trebek generated enormous criticism and threats to boycott the show because of his reputation for pushing untested medical treatments..
Although Oz is not as relentless a self (and family) promoter as Dr. Phil, both seem caught up in the world of being television celebrities rather than working professionals. Unlike McGraw, Oz still maintains his professional credentials.
Drew Pinsky has a much lower profile than his two television counterparts. With a M.D. from USC, he began his media career as an addiction specialist. He began a long radio career as the medical expert, and then co-hosted Loveline offering love, sex, mental health, and medical advice to an audience largely of young people.
His television breakthrough came from hosting celebrity rehab shows where mid-level celebrities dealt with their drug and alcohol (and later sex) addictions. Like Oz and McGraw, Dr. Drew became another face of television doctors moving beyond medical-themed shows to entertainment programs such as Family Guy and Dawson’s Creek. He became the go-to guy any time a celebrity found themselves in the throes of addiction or bad behavior (e.g., Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears). Pinsky seemed fixated on being Hollywood’s doctor.
The COVID test…failed
With so much academic training and professional experience in television, you would think these television doctors would have met the moment during the COVID Pandemic. With their large audiences, they could have tackled COVID head-on, dispelling myths about how the virus spread and offering reliable advice on social distancing, masks, and vaccines.
They would have been perfect spokesmen for science during the pandemic.
Sadly, the reverse was true. Rather than supporting the efforts of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, all three of the television doctors used their extraordinary platforms to spread misinformation. The country would have been better off had they not been on television.
Dr. Oz went on Fox’s Hannity arguing strongly for the re-opening of schools early in the pandemic. Kids going back to school, he insisted, “May only cost us two percent to three percent in terms of total mortality.” He claimed that was a tradeoff some folks would consider.
Shortly after the interview, recognizing that he did the opposite of what people would expect from a medical authority, Oz apologized saying, “I’ve realized my comments on risks around opening schools have confused and upset people, which was never my intention.”
Dr. Phil also went on Fox but with Laura Ingraham. To an audience filled with skeptics about the virus, he said that it was no more deadly than many other risks in daily life. “45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 from swimming pools—but we don’t shut the country for that,” he argued. His apology came the next day when he confessed that he probably used bad examples and said that people should follow the advice of health professionals.
Dr. Drew joined the misinformation chorus early on, downplaying the threat of the virus, calling it “press-induced panic,” and comparing it to the flu. His apology came with “I wish I had gotten it right, but I got it wrong.”
This is what we got from the most trusted medical and mental health professionals on television. Ironically, a fictional television doctor—Dr. Meredith Grey, the main character on ABC’s long-running Grey’s Anatomy played by Ellen Pompeo—got it better than the real people with real degrees when she called them out saying, “You took an oath so many years ago to do no harm… making careless statements in this environment when so many healthcare workers are suffering physically and emotionally… is defying that oath.”
Of course, the first amendment affords Drs. Phil, Oz and Drew the right to say whatever they want from their media pulpits, but all three use their professional credentials in the titles of their programs and rely on that authority for credibility. Were it just the Phil, Oz, and Drew show, they would have fewer responsibilities to their audience. They attract large ratings because of this authority; with that comes responsibility to base their programs on medical and psychological science.
Doctors have to be licensed because the potential for malpractice damage is so great. That possibility to do harm is magnified a hundred-fold for television doctors on reality television. Just as doctors and psychologists have to be certified, continue their education, and be responsible for their actions (or lose their licenses) to practice with patients, it is time for television doctors to be responsible as well. They need to be held accountable for what they say to millions of viewers.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
April 7, 2021