Rock stars and publicity hounds

Turn on CNN and you’re likely to see Dr. Sanjay Gupta reporting on his latest experiences in Haiti and even bandaging injured kids while the cameras roll. Physician superstars such as Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra and Mehmet Oz are almost household names. On the talk shows and in my own e-mail inbox, doctors flog their latest book or hawk their personal brand of energy bars, anti-aging moisturizer or what have you.

Are we talking about physicians here, or are we talking about celebrity salespeople? It’s a somewhat disturbing phenomenon that is becoming the focus of increasing attention, not to mention some criticism.

In one of the latest developments, the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on a cosmetic doctor for pitching an as-yet-unapproved antiwrinkle drug:

The FDA recently sent a warning letter to Dr. Leslie Baumann, a well-known dermatologist and clinical researcher in Miami Beach, citing the doctor for expressing premature enthusiasm in the media for Dysport, an injectable antiwrinkle drug the agency has not yet approved.

Dr. Baumann’s comments in the media in 2007 violated restrictions on drug promotion, according to the letter; the agency asked Baumann to explain how she intended to prevent similar violations in the future.

Under the Obama administration, the FDA has stepped up scrutiny of drug advertising, dispatching many warning letters about misleading commercials and online marketing efforts. But this is believed to be the first time the agency has warned an individual investigator – a medical researcher who oversees a clinical trial – for apparently promoting an unapproved drug.

News footage of physician-correspondents in Haiti who have been inserting themselves into the story was the subject of a sharp critique recently at professor Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNews Review blog. Schwitzer asks:Is this a journalist with loyalties to journalism principles? Or is this a physician with loyalties to his/her medical professional oath? It is difficult to be both.” He also sought comment from other ethicists, who characterized some of the coverage as exploitive and self-promoting.

As if this weren’t enough, physician-blogger Toni Brayer took aim at a celebrity doctor with a recent post titled “Why I Am So Over Dr. Oz.” She writes:

When he was first seen on Oprah, he seemed engaging and answered some interesting questions in a real and professional way. The audience loved his blue scrubs and boyish clean-cut open style.

That was then.

Let’s face it… the media spotlight seems to corrupt even the best physicians. Dr. Oz now has his own show and website and production company.

It isn’t necessarily wrong for physicians to want to hustle a buck. After all, the American economy was built on self-promotion and making money. There’s a long tradition in medicine of snake-oil shows; Web sites, media appearances and ties to pharmaceutical companies are simply the latest chapter in the story.

Even when doctors are well-intentioned, however, it’s a few short steps over the line from healing into hucksterism. Is the public able to tell the difference? Perhaps they just assume, incorrectly, that a medical degree grants instant credibility.

We’d all do well to remain a little skeptical. Yes, there are times when the celebrity doctors/news correspondents/authors can provide information and insight that’s helpful to the public. But sometimes, underneath all the telegenic veneer, what they’re really selling is themselves.

Image courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine

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