February 6, 2013

Want Medical Advice? Beware of Oprah, Celebrity Docs, and Evangelists

I don't watch much TV. I'd heard of Drs. Oz and Mercola, but didn't realize millions of people get their medical advice from TV celebrities, not from their doctors or other healthcare professionals.

Then, in my online research for this blog, I stumbled upon a surprising video showing how Dr. Mary Newport had begun giving coconut oil to her Alzheimer's-afflicted husband with seemingly miraculous results.

Dubious, I looked for the source for the video and saw -- or so I thought -- that it came from "CBS." I posted the video and a write-up on my blog (http://bit.ly/wX1hsQ).

I was embarrassed and angered to later discover the video aired not on CBS, but rather CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network, home of Pat Robertson's "700 Club" TV show. (I suspect it's not just coincidence that "CBN" is featured prominently without spelling out what it stands for. I can't be the only one to mistake it for CBS, or for CNN.)
The embarrassment and anger I felt about my goof may explain why I've featured several posts debunking the coconut oil claims. But the more I've researched this topic, the angrier I feel that this unsubstantiated hype has generated a coconut oil craze and raised false hopes for millions of people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers. It's also made big bucks for CBN, Robertson, and Newport (http://bit.ly/UKKbsa).
That story made me take a closer look at other healthcare hucksters on TV.
Oprah, M.D.?
Until Oprah retired from her popular TV show in 2009, her seven million viewers got a steady diet of health tips. She offered some sound advice on diet and fitness, but the program also became a forum for some questionable medical claims.
As Newsweek reported in a cover story, actress Jenny McCarthy used Oprah's show to link some well-respected childhood vaccines to autism -- a claim many experts dismiss -- without challenge from Winfrey. Suzanne Somers and Robin McGraw (Dr. Phil's wife) used the show's reach to endorse hormone therapy for women, though it can also boost the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Oprah often acknowledged both sides in medical debates. But impartiality was compromised as she gave an adoring reception to the celebrity proponent of the latest miracle cure, while the other point of view might come from a brief comment by an unknown doctor in the audience.
Observers also questioned Oprah's enthusiasm for novel cosmetic surgeries that sometimes led to complications. One plastic surgeon was quoted as saying: "If she told viewers that arsenic would make them beautiful, we'd be getting hundreds of calls from people asking for arsenic."
I didn't watch her show. But when I hear her name, the image that pops up is of Oprah, tears streaming down her face, part of the huge crowd at Chicago's Grant Park as TV screens reported Obama's 2008 election victory. Yes, it's a fondly remembered image for me.
Oprah's Protégé, Dr. Oz
On Monday, I reported on Dr. Oz's hype for green coffee bean extract as a miracle pill for weight loss. His recommendation generated a buying frenzy similar to the run on coconut oil after Pat Robertson touted it as a treatment for Alzheimer's. Yesterday, I reported on the interesting juxtaposition of Dr. Oz the highly regarded heart-transplant surgeon and Dr. Oz the TV evangelist for miracle cures of dubious merit (http://bit.ly/WMrXdw).
Today, I found a report on a recent Dr. Oz show in which he endorsed a "breakthrough," "magic," "holy grail," "revolutionary" new fat-buster, garcinia cambogia. He said this extract "may be the simple solution you've been looking for" to burn fat "without spending every waking moment exercising and dieting."
Of course, the miracle cure isn't really a cure at all. It's not even new. Garcinia cambogia has been studied as a weight-loss aid for more than 15 years. A 1998 randomized controlled trial found the extract no better than placebo for weight and fat loss. More recently, a group of researchers conducted a systematic review of 12 randomized trials of garcinia cambogia and concluded that there was no clear evidence that the extract has any impact on body weight.
Dr. Mercola
Osteopath Dr. Joseph Mercola manages mercola.com, a popular alternative health website. There, he promotes and sells a variety of alternative medical treatments and dietary supplements.
Just as Oprah promoted Dr. Oz as "America's doctor," Oz in turn anointed Mercola as a "pioneer in holistic treatments" and "a man your doctor doesn't want you to listen to."
That description no doubt is true, since Dr. Mercola:
  • has received three warning letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for violating U.S. marketing laws by making false and misleading claims,
  • has called microwave ovens dangerous, claiming that they emit dangerous radiation and that microwaving food adversely alters its chemistry. (The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide says "cooking with a microwave probably does a better job of preserving nutrient content of foods because the cooking times are shorter."),
  • has questioned whether HIV is the cause of AIDS,
  • has argued that vaccines are dangerous and that they even cause AIDS,
  • has asserted that the mercury in vaccines is harmful despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary,
  • has argued that children shouldn't be given the flu vaccine since very few children die of the flu,
  • has promoted alleged experts like Tullio Simoncini, who claims that cancer is a fungus that can be cured with baking soda.
I could go on with a long list of similar unfounded claims. Just check  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Mercola.
Finally, here's what Business Week had to say about Mercola's marketing of his products:
Mercola gives the lie to the notion that holistic practitioners tend to be so absorbed in treating patients that they aren't effective businesspeople. While Mercola on his site seeks to identify with this image by distinguishing himself from "all the greed-motivated types out there in health-care land," he is a master promoter, using every trick of traditional and Internet direct marketing to grow his business.... He is selling health care products and services, and is calling upon an unfortunate tradition made famous by the old-time snake-oil salesmen of the l800s.
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These are just a few of the medical-care hucksters out there.   Hundreds more pop up on the internet and TV. I haven't even mentioned all the late-night infomercials on healthcare products, which are classic examples of snake-oil salesmanship.

Just because someone is on TV wearing scrubs, doesn't mean you should take what they are saying as gospel. Even bona fide, credential doctors often end up talking about issues well beyond their area of expertise -- Dr. Oz, a heart surgeon, warning about arsenic in apple juice, for example. 

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