January 20, 2022

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America’s TV doctors missed a golden opportunity to shut up this week

America’s TV doctors are having a wild week.

It all began when Dr Oz went on Fox News to speak with Sean Hannity (rumor has it that if you say these words three times in front of a mirror at midnight, the ghost of Joseph Pulitzer will appear, covered in blood and followed by a murder of crows) about the coronavirus crisis. During the exchange, Hannity asked Oz to weigh in on how to safely reopen the country. (Side note: Dr Oz is not an epidemiologist, nor a virologist. He is, by trade, a heart surgeon, which is impressive, yes, but also sort of unrelated to the topic of how to curb a pandemic. I happen to have an excellent OB-GYN, but I wouldn’t ask her to treat my shoulder pain.)

When asked to weigh in on how America could potentially ease lockdown restrictions, Oz thought it would be wise, and relevant, and interesting, and worthy of national television, to share the following musings: “Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble. I tell ya, schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us two to three per cent in terms of total mortality.”

In an apparent attempt to ease the blow of the words that had just passed his lips, Oz added that “any life is a life lost” (which, yes, is a tautology) and stressed that getting children back into schools also meant enabling them to get an education as well as meals (two legitimate concerns that have been discussed across the country since lockdown measures went into effect).

Oz’s comments were poorly received, to say the least. The hashtag #FireDrOz started making the rounds on social media. People found his remarks “ghoulish” and “unforgivable”. The outcry was such that Oz felt moved to share a video clip on Thursday, which, despite being deemed an apology by several outlets, failed to include the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”.

Instead, Oz said in part: “I’ve realized my comments on risks around opening schools have confused and upset people, which was never my intention. I misspoke. As a heart surgeon, I spent my career fighting to save lives in the operating room by minimizing risks. At the same time, I’m being asked constantly how we will be able to get people back to their normal lives.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Poor Dr Oz, he’s being asked about coronavirus constantly – and it’s not like he could just, oh I don’t know, decline TV opportunities when he’s run out of relevant things to say! The nation’s TV hosts have been lining up around the block! They’re breaking down his door and fighting over the brilliant tidbits he has to share!

Anyway, yes, Oz “misspoke” to say the least, and no, the problem isn’t that people were “confused”. There was some confusion on social media over who, exactly, was included in the potential two to three per cent he was referring to, but the general consensus is that Oz’s comments are pretty terrible regardless of how to interpret them. What people took issue with is the apparent suggestion that knowingly putting human lives on the line in exchange for reopening parts of the country would be an acceptable course of action.

The sentence “First, do no harm” is often misattributed to the Hippocratic Oath, where in fact it does not appear. Yes, a version of those words was written by Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of medicine, but in a text titled – how very fitting – Of the Epidemics. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you! I, for one, know when to acknowledge that I’m not the expert in a given field. There’s more information from Harvard Health, and here’s a handy link to Of the Epidemics as published by the MIT, which includes the full sentence: “The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future – must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”

Oz would do well to re-read the part about “foretelling the future” and “doing no harm”. (Like I said, I’m no expert, but casually weighing the worth of thousands of human lives on national television sounds a little bit harmful to me.) And if he’s not willing to do that, then maybe he should figure out a way to turn down media interviews if he has nothing of worth to contribute.

But enough about Oz for now, because somehow, even as people were clamoring for Oz to be sent into TV oblivion for the foreseeable future, another one of America’s most prominent TV doctors decided he wanted to get in on the action: Dr Phil.

A quick, but extremely important note about Dr Phil McGraw: while he does hold a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, McGraw is not a medical doctor. He’s allowed to call himself “doctor” in the academic sense, much like Ross Geller in Friends referred to himself as Dr Geller because he had a PhD in paleontology, but that’s about it.

Anyway, McGraw, too, was interviewed on Fox News, where he suggested it wasn’t necessary to lock down the country due to the coronavirus because we don’t do it for other, non-contagious causes of death, such as car crashes and cancer.

“The economy is crashing around us and they’re doing that because people are dying from the coronavirus. I get that,” he said. McGraw then pointed out that people routinely die due to “automobile accidents”, “cigarettes”, and “swimming pools”, “but we don’t shut the country down for that.”

“Yet, we’re doing it for this and the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are being destroyed,” he added.

Obviously, people don’t die from car crashes, tobacco-induced illness, or drowning as a result of being packed in the same places. If they were, chances are we would be taking social distancing measures to avoid those deaths too. Indeed, we do put in precautions intended to prevent those deaths, such as seatbelts, PSAs about drink-driving, healthcare initiatives aimed at getting people to stop smoking, swimming lessons for children, and so on. But why refrain from making a completely baseless comparison, as long as it makes for vaguely entertaining television and you get to tell some people exactly what they want to hear?

The idea of bringing medicine to the world of television is thorny enough to begin with. If you want to defend it, you might say that TV doctors are all about popularisation. This isn’t about profit! It’s about making medicine and science available to the masses. And who could argue against that?

Except that’s not what we have here. This isn’t about making medicine accessible to the people – it’s about cheapening your trade to turn it into profitable entertainment. This is a problem in many professions, but it becomes much more of an issue when your life’s work is about saving — or at the very least protecting, or at the very, very least, not harming — lives.

I’m not a doctor, but since that word has clearly lost all of its meaning anyway, I’ll go ahead and make a diagnosis: Dr Oz and Dr Phil have a serious case of attention-seeking, with the aggravating factor of being unable to resist the temptation to open their respective mouths in front of a camera. My prescription is an intense course of shutting the hell up.

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