TV Docs: Medicine and Mass Appeal

There's a reason people trust the guys on the tube

In an unconventional move, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sat down with TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz to discuss his personal health and most recent physical exam.

Although candidates for the White House don’t usually release medical test results via daytime television show hosts, the move plays directly into the populist appeal Trump has demonstrated throughout his campaign.

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And Trump had some very good news to share — so why wouldn’t he want to get that out? He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he takes a cholesterol-lowering drug, his parents lived into their late 80s and 90s — and the last time he was hospitalized was way back at the age of 11, for an appendectomy.

In short, in stunning contrast to Hillary Clinton, who has had numerous health issues over the years, Trump is in great health. The upbeat assessment of Trump’s medical status was released Thursday by his personal physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, a New York City internist.

Trump has been a patient of Bornstein’s at Lenox Hill Hospital for the past 36 years, since Nov. 6, 1980.

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Related: Trump’s Records Show He’s in Great Health

Yet separate and apart from the very solid facts about Donald Trump’s health, the doctors-and-TV partnership is worth examining.

“The Dr. Oz Show” is one of the top five TV shows in the United States, with close to 3 million viewers a day. Many viewers recognize that the show is carefully calibrated to provide information in an entertaining and accessible format — yet many others don’t understand the distinction between TV theatrics and real medical counsel.

Dr. Oz’s credibility has been questioned over the years; his colleagues in the medical community have called for his dismissal from the Columbia University faculty. He was grilled before a Senate subcommittee hearing about dietary supplements. He touts miracle weight-loss pills that don’t work and even prompted widespread alarm when he said the Ebola virus could become airborne. Still, he has millions of viewers.

There are many other TV and radio doctors. Dr. Travis Stork first made his television debut as a steamy singleton on Season 8 of “The Bachelor,” but then moved on to become a popular medical radio show host based in Los Angeles. Dr. Phillip McGraw — otherwise known as Dr. Phil — uses his background in psychology to give viewers relationship and psychological advice.

“The shows are set up to look legitimate, but if you look closely at the products they push, that’s what it’s all about,” said Barnes.

American viewers may get suckered into these shows, but the American Medical Association says it’s often unclear whether the medical advice that’s touted is based on the newest research — or if a sponsor of the show is paying for the information.

“[We encourage] physicians when engaged in public discourse related to health and medical science to disclose whether stated positions are based on peer-reviewed evidence, standard of care, or personal opinion,” the AMA says in its resolution published last year.

This means doctors should stick to the peer-reviewed research that’s currently available.

But they don’t always. For a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers took 40 episodes of “The Dr. Oz Show” and identified 479 separate medical recommendations. When compared with the current body of medical research, they verified only 46 percent of his recommendations. Medical research contradicted 15 percent of his recommendations; it was nonexistent for the other 39 percent. A similar survey of Dr. Travis Stork’s radio show produced similar results: Medical research supported 63 percent of the content, contradicted 14 percent, and did not exist for 24 percent.

People will pay money if they think a product will give them a result with no effort.

The credibility of these shows is often tied to a fame factor, said Requina Barnes, owner of Strength Inc., and a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Boston, Massachusetts. Because the shows’ producers can entice famous people to appear, the public continues to believe there must be some truth behind what’s presented.

She also says these TV personalities are often more relatable to people than their own doctors during the 15-minute conversations they might have with them once or twice a year. “People can relate to either the hosts themselves or to the stories they’ve covered, so there’s a connection,” said Barnes.

Trust of the medical profession as a whole is in decline. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health reports that only 34 percent of U.S. adults say they have “great confidence in the leaders of the medical profession.” That’s a 40-percent decline from previous decades. The survey showed Americans think physicians are more interested in business than in medicine. At a loss for sound medical advice, many people could be turning to suave and attractive TV personalities with burnished images and rank showmanship.

Related: Why Eating Well Isn’t Easy

“Almost 100 percent of the diet industry is comprised of questionable products that may harm users more than help,” said Pat Barone, a life and wellness coach in Madison, Wisconsin. “But in our society, people will pay money if they think a product will be ‘magical’ or give them a result with no effort. As someone who lost 92 pounds and sustained that weight loss for 16 years, I can say there are no shortcuts to self-care.”

Barone pointed out that TV personalities receive big paychecks to promote certain remedies. “The shows are set up to look legitimate, and may give some good advice here and there. But if you look closely at the ads and the products they push, that’s what it’s all about. Everything else is filler material and usually centered on topics most people already understand.”

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