Oprah – I’m not a doctor, but I play a really bad one on TV

In their Newsweek Cover story whose link is entitled “Why Oprah’s Health Advice Can make You Sick“, writers Pat Wingert and Weston Kovsova have finally broken the cone of mainstream media silence that surrounds Oprah, letting everyone else in on the dirty little secret that we doctors have known for some time now – Oprah is practicing bad medicine without a licence.

Because the truth is, some of what Oprah promotes isn’t good, and a lot of the advice her guests dispense on the show is just bad. The Suzanne Somers episode wasn’t an oddball occurrence. This kind of thing happens again and again on Oprah….She has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

Oprah’s embrace of the Woo-Woo factor in health hasn’t served either herself or her viewers. By giving her stage over to wackos like hormone-crazy Suzanne Somers and anti-vaccine nut Jenny McCarthy, while treating legitimate medical authorities as nothing more than naysayers, Oprah has behaved irresponsibly and abused the huge power that the American TV viewing public has bestowed upon her as the Queen of the daytime talk show.

Oprah’s Response

Oprah’s response to the Newsweek article is self-serving and disingenuous. She hides behind what she calls the ‘intelligence” of her viewers to sift through the crap she presents them to find what’s right for them.

For 23 years, my show has presented thousands of topics that reflect the human experience, including doctors’ medical advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations between our audience members and their health care providers. I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them.

I believe my viewers understand the medical information presented on the show is just that—information—not an endorsement or prescription.

Not an endorsement or prescription, Oprah? Like the woman you took to your doctor for a “hormone makeover” after touting the miracles you experienced from those same hormones? That non-endorsement?

Drs Northrup and Oz – Not just innocent bystanders

Wingert and Kosova also take on Christian Northrup, Oprah’s menopause Guru, for her new age medical opinions that are just plan bad advice. Northrup recommends iodine supplementation, unnecessary in almost anyone, and soy, which actually interferes with thyoid hormone absorption. Worse still are her theories about the causes of thyroid disease.

As she explains in her book, “in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say.

When it comes to menopause, Northrup is on safer ground, in my opinion. Her book is by and large medically correct in terms of menopausal treatments, and thankfully, she does not package HRT as anything other than what it is – a pharmacologic treatment with risks as well as benefits. But any little credibility Northrup has is squandered by her failure to challenge Suzanne Somers’ outlandish claims about HRT, and her willingness to appear side-by-side with Somers in forums such as the Oprah show, giving tacit approval to the wholesale marketing of bioidentical hormones as the fountain of youth.

Like Northrup, Dr Oz sat by unquestioning while Suzanne Somers and Dr Hall have spouted incorrect medical information.

One could argue that Oprah is the victim of bad advice from these two doctors, whose need for her endorsement has led to their unwillingness to challenge her in public. But I disagree. What would happen if Dr Northrup Or Oz were to actually argue with Suzanne Somers on Oprah’s show? I’ll tell you what – they’d get relegated to a seat in the audience along with the rest of the good doctors who dare to speak the truth to the emperor. Oprah would find some other quack to sit next to Suzanne Somers while she spews her fallacies. Don’t kid yourself. This is, after all, the woman who gave the entire CDC a whopping 30 second written statment in response to Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine nonsense.

No, Oprah is no victim here – she is utterly in control.

Should Dr Oprah be Sued for Malpractice?

I think it’s time Dr Oprah deals with what every other doctor in America has to deal with – a malpractice case. In fact, I’m shocked that someone hasn’t sued her by now for an adverse outcome related to a treatment she has touted (or in the case of vaccines, advised them to avoid). Here’s one suit she may have narrowly avoided –

In March 2007, the month after the first two shows on The Secret, Oprah invited a woman named Kim Tinkham on the program. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her doctors were urging surgery and chemotherapy. But Tinkham wrote Oprah to say that she had decided to forgo this treatment and instead use The Secret to cure herself. On the show, Oprah seemed genuinely alarmed that Tinkham had taken her endorsement of The Secret so seriously. “When my staff brought this letter to me, I wanted to talk to her,” Oprah told the audience. “I said, get her in here, OK?” On air, Oprah urged the woman to listen to her doctors. “I don’t think that you should ignore all of the advantages of medical science and try to, through your own mind now because you saw a Secret tape, heal yourself,” she said. A few weeks earlier, Oprah could not say enough in praise of The Secret as the guiding philosophy of her life. Now she said that people had somehow gotten the wrong idea. “I think that part of the mistake in translation of The Secret is that it’s used to now answer every question in the world. It is not the answer to all questions,” she instructed. “I just wanted to say it’s a tool. It is not the answer to everything.”

While Oprah did the right thing and brought that woman onto her show to tell her to get to a conventional doctor, are there women who missed the follow up recant? How about those women out there taking hormones without being advised of their risks, or failing to vaccinate a child who subsequently becomes ill from a vaccine-preventable disease?

Maybe some clever lawyer will see dollar signs in Newsweek’s cover and get a class action suit going on behalf of Oprah’s viewers whose trust she has betrayed. After all, those are some deep pockets there at Harpo Productions.

I wouldn’t hold my breath.
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Previous posts about Oprah on this blog

The medical blogsosphere take on Oprah

14 Responses to Oprah – I’m not a doctor, but I play a really bad one on TV

  1. i am really torn on Dr. Northrup. It is appealing to me that being an ob/gyn does not mean that one necessarily buys into the medicalization of being female.

    I liked some of her descriptions of being pregnant and trying to honor the fact that she was low risk, and she refused some prenatal screening. I felt comfortable making some similar decisions due to my risk profile.

    The main thing I have mixed feelings about is her tendency to associate psychological and emotional blockages or issues with physical manifestations. I have no problem with a woman getting in touch with her emotions, examining her life for unfilled opportunities, etc. However, there seems to be no small amount of victim blaming here, especially if a woman doesn't want to think that her fibroid was caused by stuffing her dreams.

  2. Bravo, Dr. TBTAM! I think Oprah and followers need something to react against–and we are it. Thanks for this eloquent post. RuralObGyn

  3. I've got autistic children, so I find her endorsement of Jenny McCarthy not only appalling but frustrating. My kids (and other children and adults in North America) are not getting the funding or research that can help them live the best lives that they can because of all of the wasted time, energy, and money that is spent on debunking the bullshit that Oprah and the "I'll eat my vomit for $50" attention whore "Indigo Mom" who has "a PhD in Google" who can't even decide whether her son has "recovered" from autism or not spout on a daily basis.

    Jenny McCarthy's bodycount (http://www.jennymccarthybodycount.com/Jenny_McCarthy_Body_Count/Home.html) should also be called "Oprah's bodycount" . The CDC and the medical establishment at large have have been very slow at responding in an effective way to their claims, most likely because I think that most rational people thought that they were too ridiculous to respond to.

    I've also got higher order multiple birth children, and I've had more than a few friends who have appeared on Oprah's show (once. I've never known anyone to go back for a second appearance). Oprah in person is a completely different person than the Oprah that you see on the screen, and few people seem to want a second interaction with her unless you fully buy into her brand of woo.

    While I know many, many doctors who do their best to counteract the nonsense that is spouted by Oprah, perhaps it's time for the various medical associations in North America to mount a concerted effort to counteract the harm that she's doing.

  4. Excellent article TBTAM!
    It's so refreshing to read that I wasn't the only one feeling like Oprah went overboard with the HRT for menopause.
    Oprah has such an influence on the public, and she knows better than to just trust the 'intelliegence' of her audience!

  5. I was widowed when my four kids were young and I busted my butt to raise and support them in a comfortable middle class home. So I have always joked “Why doesn’t someone tell Oprah how wonderful I am so she will have me on her show and give me lots of cool free stuff.” Lol

    But I am not laughing so much anymore. The Oprah juggernaut is a scary thing to witness as it rolls over facts and promotes misinformation. Having both hypothyroidism and Multiple Sclerosis, I am resentful of suggestions that I have caused my own illnesses.

    The nadir for me was the boo hoo hoo Montel Williams episode, where Dr. Oz actually pronounced as fact that the leading cause of death for MS patients was suicide and suffocation!!!

    Dr. Oz, you need to replace your research assistant because you are just wrong, wrong, wrong. I pity the newly diagnosed MS patient who saw that show, between Montel bawling his head off and being told you are probably going to eventually off yourself.

    (The literature on MS mortality indicates most of us will have a near normal life expectancy. Slightly more than half of us will die from a complication of MS, usually an infection such as pneumonia or septicemia.)

    I think it is interesting and important to discuss alternative treatments. However, those discussions have to be conducted in a balanced and responsible manner. Oprah, with all her power to do good, is doing American women a terrible disservice. What a disappointment.

    (P.S. But Oprah, I have worked awfully hard, and now I’m sick too, boo hoo hoo; if you want to have me on your show and give me lots of cool free stuff, I might be able to overlook this little hiccup…)

    LOL

  6. Many years ago I had one of Christiane Northrup's books on women's health and, while there was an annoying degree of Woo Woo in it, it was mostly solid information.

    Not any more. A few months ago I saw one of her recent books on a table & leafed through it. Since I've had ovarian cancer, I flipped to that section and discovered that she claims it's the result of anger. Good God, how can anyone with a license to practice medicine write such victim-blaming bullshit?

  7. Thanks for this post. I am horribly disappointed in Oprah. In some ways she is a great role model for young African American girls and women, and particularly those growing up in poverty. Her naivete about science is dangerous, given how many people watch her show. I do hope she at some point renounces all the hocus pocus and becomes an advocate for science.

  8. What a post. So well articulated. Really well done!

    And I concur with your position that Oprah is in charge here, and should have serious accountability for the information coming from her program.

    But I have a question for the traditional medical community…why is it that so many people (women in particular) are tuned in and willing to listen to the perspective from Oprah, and not their doctors? She has a better relationship with them, that's why!

    I sense that the country is starving for trust of the medical community, and Oprah has not only noticed it, she has cashed in on it. Are there more holistic approaches that the traditional medical community doesn't prefer to discuss? Absolutely. Apparently, this is a topic the people would be engaged in discussing with someone, and right now, it's with Oprah and gang.

    The message is clear – if you don't like what she's selling, find a way to sell medical advice better. She is penetrating the market better. It's not about right or wrong, but talking about what the patients want to hear. While these two thing are most often mutually exclusive, this is, in the end, an influence process.

    You want Oprah out? Influence as well as she does!

  9. […] I wrote once that not only is Oprah Winfrey not a doctor, she plays a really bad one on TV. From promoting Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaccine movement, to allowing Suzanne Somers a bully-pulpit for her medical woo, to pushing Prudence Hall and her high-dose hormone treatments without acknowledging their potential risks, to leading the church of the Secret as a way to avoid facing the harsh realities of cancer, Oprah did more harm than good when it comes to health. […]

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