The sickness of TV doctors

Public opinion on daytime TV personality Mehmet Oz keeps souring.  Earlier this year, John Oliver ran a story about his snake-oil-esque marketing of dubious “miracle” supplements.  Now, Twitter users have joined the crusade with their famous ability to co-opt public relations gimmicks, with gems like these:

“Just read that my new detox regimen might be toxic. Can u recommend a detoxification to detoxify my toxins?”

“Would one drop of homeopathic medicine in the ocean be diluted enough for everyone who goes swimming to get the proper dosage?”

“I got a flu shot and was bitten by mosquitoes. Will they carry autism now? “

And some that were, chillingly, difficult to categorize as either impressively ironic or depressingly not:

“Do you know a detox regimen for children left neurologically devastated after a vaccine preventable illness?”

“Hi Dr. Oz! Can a broken heart really cause a heart disease? I’ve read about a broken heart syndrome.”

People seem to have an insatiable desire to treat doctors as high-paid Yahoo! Answers users.  Rather than do the work of researching an answer from reliable sources,  it’s just much easier and more immediately reassuring to fling one-sentence questions into the ether and wait for someone you’ve never met to send you a couple-hundred-word (if that) answer.  It’s easier to go to Twitter and ask Dr. Oz what pill to take and what pseudoscience is real than to search for a local doctor who meets your needs (not a small task) and work with them to find the best treatment options for you as an individual.  Dr. Oz beams right into your living room and he’s charming and handsome (supposedly?) and he has such simple recommendations to completely change your life!

But Dr. Oz isn’t just easier, he’s cheaper.  For the price of a cable TV and internet subscription, you can have all the Dr. Oz you want in your life 24/7.  By comparison, if, say, you need help losing weight, you could visit a GP for a referral to a good nutritionist and visit them regularly.  To the tune of hundreds of dollars per visit.  So aren’t TV doctors doing us a favor by spreading medical knowledge to people who can’t afford care or insurance?

Short answer:  No, they’re twats.  Long answer:  No, they’re twats, they don’t know who you are, you can’t trust what they say, and their reason for living is to take your money.

Let’s be clear, having a degree that lets you call yourself Dr. Somebody is not a qualification to offer unqualified advice to people you don’t know.  It doesn’t mean your an extraordinarily selfless human being with unparallelled mental prowess.  It just means you got through medical school– which is very impressive, but likely has as much to do with where you come from as what you’re made of, unless what you’re made of is money.

There is a reason a doctor’s office insists you give them at least a modicum of information about who you are, your lifestyle, and your personal and family history.  Trust me, I don’t enjoy it:  Every time I visit a new provider, which is fairly often — psychologist, psychiatrist, GP, specialist– I have to answer the same damn questions first on a form and then verbally.  But I’m also glad they collect this information, and if they didn’t, I wouldn’t go back to that office.

Because yes, I imagine the questions exist partly to cover their asses, but the reason that’s even a thing is that treating people without knowing enough about them is reckless.  And I think we’ve all realized by this point that the people on TV cannot actually see you watching them.  Oz has no freaking clue who you are.  He has no way of knowing what adverse effects or interactions you will have with the pills and plants he pushes, and he won’t be there to monitor the safeness and efficacy of the treatment.  You’re on your own to figure out whether what you’re taking or doing is helping or actually harming you.

Oz may be technically a doctor, but he is not your doctor.  The relationship is as simple as this:  He makes money, supplement manufacturers make money, you lose money, and you get nothing else.

And although it’s Oz in the hot seat currently, he’s not alone.  TV is replete with “experts,” such as the doctors on “The Doctors,” and my personal favorite, Phil McGraw, a retired psychologist who hasn’t held an active license since 2006– which is okay, because according to the California Board of Psychology, he practices “entertainment,” not psychology, on his Jerry-Springer-Lite talk show Dr. Phil.

Said McGraw in 2001, “I’m not the Hush-Puppies, pipe and ‘Let’s talk about your mother’ kind of psychologist.”  Very clever, Phil, to set up a straw man so you can make your histrionics appealing in comparison to private talk therapy.  (For one thing, what’s wrong with Hush-Puppies and pipes?)

In fact, the “kind of psychologist” he was, back when he was a psychologist– and the kind of television host he still is– is an overbearing, single-minded, simplistic and callous one.  In his contempt for Freudian psychoanalysis (as if that were somehow the modern trend in talk therapy) he has created a flashy, fast-paced single-serving psychodrama that panders to anyone who might be home weekdays at 3PM.

He has a catchphrase– “How’s that workin’ for ya?”– and inspiring theme music.  He either believes, or wants us to believe, that having a forty-five minute Big Talk with someone where you really set them straight will be workin’ for ya just fine.  Frankly, if I walked into a therapist’s office that resembled McGraw’s studio, I would run out screaming “Help, it’s dystopia!” Understandably, these views have proven controversial at best, but that hasn’t stopped McGraw from raking in the cash– making it to #22 on the Forbes Celebrity 100 List, with $45 million of income.

McGraw is deluding himself if he genuinely thinks that people are so entertained by his not-psychology that they aren’t even considering applying his advice to their own lives.  You don’t call yourself Dr., call your show Dr., and publicly give stern advice to severely disturbed people unless you are counting on and encouraging people to see you as an authority.

And we’re deluding ourselves if we think that this is incidental, because billing himself as a medical authority is his brand.  (In the spirit John Oliver’s suggestion that Dr. Oz should be re-named Check This Shit Out with Some Guy Named Mehmet, I’ll say that I don’t think a show called Bald White Guy Talks Down to Troubled Folks would go over that well.)  It’s why he was called in to advise those The Doctors doctors on “how to give articulate medical advice while being scrutinized by a studio audience in Los Angeles.”  Because his expertise isn’t in psychology, it’s in selling psychology.

TV doctors are, basically, a life hack.  “How to: Get free medical care without leaving your couch.”  But the meme is a much less innocent one than slicing cherry tomatoes in half between two plates.  It in no way alleviates the problematic lack of accessible and affordable medical care, because it does not provide medical care, just tawdry entertainment masquerading as legitimate advice.  All it does is create a new class of parasitic celebrity.  Please, afternoon TV viewers, go back to watching soap operas or reading Harlequin paperbacks or whatever you used to do.  Our fixation on TV doctors is sick, it hurts us, and it needs to stop.


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