Dr. Phil McGraw is the latest celebrity doctor to trigger a backlash over comments made on the coronavirus, when, as a guest on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, he compared coronavirus deaths to those due to smoking, car crashes and swimming pool accidents.
“The fact of the matter is we have 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 from swimming pools and we don’t shut the country down for that, and yet we are doing it for this, and the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are going to be destroyed,” McGraw said on Thursday morning.
After a social media backlash to those comments, McGraw said on Friday that he “probably used bad examples” on The Ingraham Angle, and that he supported the shutdown orders, the Centers for Disease Control guidelines and the need for broader testing. He also advised viewers to listen to their governors as they make decisions on how and when to reopen:
The controversy over Dr. Phil’s comments — similar to those he’d made before — was just the latest case of a celebrity doctor holding forth on issues that are, if not outside the boundaries of their own expertise, much more likely to generate pushback in this highly charged environment of the pandemic.
On Thursday, Dr. Mehmet Oz said that he “misspoke” when, as a guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show two days earlier, they discussed the prospects of reopening schools.
Oz told Hannity, “Schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into a school where they are safely being educated, being fed and making the most out of their lives, with a theoretical risk on the backside, it might be a theoretical risk some folks will consider.”
In his later video explanation, Oz said, “I’ve realized my comments on risks around opening schools have confused and upset people, which was never my intention. I misspoke.”
The celebrity doctors — McGraw has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Oz is an MD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, specializing in cardiac and cardiovascular diseases at Columbia — have been tempting figures for producers across all networks to book on talk shows, their reputations already well known to viewers. McGraw, who has been doing Instagram and Facebook live sessions in addition to his show, recently did a Deadline Q&A on the coronavirus crisis, where he said, “I just want to say to the politicians, ‘Shut up and let the scientists speak.'”
But they are a contrast to other figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, who are members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and are helping to lead the coronavirus mitigation efforts. Fauci in particular has been ubiquitous on TV, appearing across media outlets including Hannity and, right before McGraw’s appearance on Thursday, on Ingraham’s show.
The problem, according to Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor of communications and media studies, is that viewers might have trouble noticing the difference.
“The public, in general, is likely to listen to and take seriously anyone they see on television with a ‘Dr.’ before their name,” Levinson said via email. “This includes people who actively practice medical research and medical administration, like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, and people whose main practice is talking on television, like Dr. Phil.
“Unfortunately, when Dr. Phil expresses an opinion, which he did last night on Fox, that shutting down the country for the coronavirus makes as much sense as shutting down the country because of automobile accidents and the like, we are not getting a medical opinion, we’re getting an opinion no better or worse than any person on the street. The public needs to learn not to pay attention to those opinions, which can literally lead to more people dying.”
It’s an issue for not just TV talking heads, but for medical related subjects in dramas and comedies. Kate Folb, director of Hollywood, Health & Society at the USC Norman Lear Center, said that they work with screenwriters to seek input for accuracy from places like the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and the USC Keck School of Medicine. Next week, they are planning a webinar on another topic that has been well-worn on cable news — the use of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19 patients.
Of course, there is no shortage of opinions as the coronavirus crisis moves into the thorny questions of when and how to reopen the economy in individual states and concerns are raised not just about physical health but mental health, which is McGraw’s speciality. That has led to a drumbeat of voices, particularly on the right, that the solution cannot be more damaging than the problem.
There are still a lot of unknowns about the coronavirus — including the full extent of its spread — but also a perpetual demand for voices on news channels. In filling that void, though, celebrity doctors have walked into an exceedingly stressful moment where their words are going to be subjected to an extra level of scrutiny and travel like wildfire over the internet. Hence the clarifications.
Several weeks ago, Dr. Drew Pinsky, aka Dr. Drew, who earned his MD at USC School of Medicine, apologized for initially equating the coronavirus with the flu on his podcast and in other media appearances. A compilation of his previous comments had drawn millions of views on social media.
“When Dr. Fauci made it clear that this was not a usual influenza, that it was significantly worse, I adjusted course,” he said, while adding that “the thing that I also said from the beginning was to follow the CDC recommendations, follow Dr. Fauci’s recommendations, they would keep us safe.”
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