Taking this seriously

“America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?”
— Allen Ginsberg, “America” (1956)

Welcome to the Doctors In Oz Blog. We’re using this forum to share first-hand accounts and debate the role of mainstream media in disseminating medical information.

I’m starting this blog off with a startling and somber story. Not all the stories we share will be so tragic, but I’m choosing this one because it’s a reminder that patients listen. Doctors will gripe about how patients aren’t “compliant” with their medications.  Our advice about diet and exercise will often fall on deaf ears. But still, patients sometimes listen. And when they do, we better be sure the advice we’re giving them is reasonable and safe.

Here’s what “JK” writes about her father:

“I just read online that you are gathering info about bad advice that Dr. Oz has given. My dad had a heart attack and had 5 stents placed in his heart. These stents were specifically coated with a material that required the patient to take aspirin and Plavix [to prevent clotting].  He was watching Dr. Oz, who said that Plavix was not necessary, so he stopped taking it. About a month later, he had another massive MI [heart attack] and coded and had to be shocked back to life. The hospital cardiologist asked him about medications when they found a clot at the site of the stent. My dad admitted to following Dr. Oz’s advice and not asking his own cardiologist.  He learned that lesson the hard way and doesn’t listen to Dr. Oz anymore.”

Skeptical readers may laugh when they hear about someone who believes a “television doctor” instead of their own physician. And it’s unlikely that Dr. Oz was encouraging people who underwent heart procedures to stop taking Plavix. The perception of everyday viewers, however, is vital to consider. Television shows often feature fear-inducing warnings about rare side effects. Shows will bring on a guest (often unqualified) to generate enough doubt in the viewers’ minds that they apply general medical information to their own individual case.

Patients are listening to us, and we need to take their trust seriously because when a doctor gets on TV and millions of people tune in, you can be sure they’re taking him seriously.

A television show can provide all the excuses it likes. Legal departments can assure us there is no doctor-patient relationship here. Disclaimers can beg us to seek advice from our own physicians. But we’re far from the days when anyone can deny the power of flash and prestige. Put a charismatic doctor with impeccable credentials on television and people will listen. Does the prospect of someone listening to a doctor’s advice now frighten or amuse us? What can we do to change this?

Let us know your thoughts and experiences. We’ll keep sharing them.

December 28, 2014 | Benjamin Mazer