Goodbye, Dr Oprah – and Good Riddance.

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.

And while the publishing industry may be hanging crepe, the medical community is breathing a sigh of relief that Oprah has left the airwaves, at least for now. After all, we “conventional” docs were repeatedly relegated to a seat in the audience by Oprah, who usually presented us as naysayers and officials in the Church of Medicine to Oprah’s self-appointed Galileos of Woo, rather than the health experts we are. Of course, it was all couched in terms of female empowerment, a tactic that Oprah long ago taught marketers can be used to sell anything and everything to women.

My axe to grind against Oprah is not just professional, it’s personal. For I saw my sister, nearing the end her life, turn to the Secret, believing that if she just believed enough in herself, she would be cured. Rather than strengthen her, the Secret drained her, turning her away from the supports around her towards an ever elusive goal that never allowed her the possibility of acceptance and preparation for her departure.

I have to admit that I was surprised when my good friend Linda wrote her own Ode to Oprah Winfrey, in which she thanked the Queen of daytime talk for 25 years of wisdom, excusing Oprah’s medical gaffes as nothing more than misplaced good intentions. Well-intentioned though Oprah may have been at some point, I believe she long ago lost the connection between good intentions and their results.  In this regard, one particular lesson Linda learned from Oprah can be applied to Oprah herself, and it is this –

When people show you who they are, believe them.

Well, as far as this doctor is concerned, Oprah long ago showed me who she was, and that is nothing more than the biggest marketing Alpha Girl the media ever created, a woman who refused to use her intelligence to look beyond the marketing messages of her so called medical experts to even try to understand the science behind the issues she was promoting, and who never once considered the potential negative impact of those marketing messages on the health of her viewers. My disappointment in her has been profund, for I really did like her immensely.

Of course, we all know that Oprah isn’t really gone. With the creation of her own network, she will, like the hydra, create ever more marketing opportunities for anyone with a product to sell, relegating to her cadre of producers the authority granted her by her worshipping public.

Happily, so far, when it comes to medical topics, OWN has done pretty well. They purchased the Discovery Channel’s documentary series “Deliver  Me“, about three Ob-Gyn docs in urban LA. And Laura Berman’s episode on herpes was spot on, with weblinks to ASHASTD.org, a great resource for health info on herpes and other STD’s. Hmm…maybe OWN’s producers haven’t drunk as much of the Oprah Woo-Aid as I think they may have.

Then again, Dr Oz is still out there…

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More on Oprah and her Medical Woo from around the Web – feel free to add links in the comments section.

16 Responses to Goodbye, Dr Oprah – and Good Riddance.

  1. Ohhhh…gotta disagree with you on this one, TBTam. Oprah didn’t get it right all the time but after 25 years she made an amazing and positive impact on people all over the world. In a time of “Jerry Springer” and “Jersey Shore”, Oprah spread a positive message and opened up subjects that would never have made it to the airways. She was honest about herself, her flaws, her struggles and gave permission for others to be honest also. Yes, she got a little woo-woo. All of her book choices weren’t the best and all of her guests weren’t credible. But look at the body of work! She made giving popular. She made reading popular. She influenced women and children to dream big and led by example.

    Millions of people, me included, will miss Oprah. I only hope I can get her old shows on netflix because I missed so many while at work.

    • Toni –

      As a talk show host, she did some nice things, and I liked her immensely for many years for all the reasons you (and my friend Linda) state. But, IMHO, she drifted too far afield in the past few years by taking on health topics she knew nothing about, and choosing again and again to promote quackery and pseudoscience to her believing public.

      This post was not written from the point of view of a woman watching TV, but as a doc dealing with the fallout of her show’s impact in the day to day of my medical practice and in the medical lives of my patients and family.

      Peace,

      Peggy

  2. got to agree with your assessment. oprah did some good things– but “positive thoughts” do not do a freaking thing about the freaking cancer, or other diseases.

    i’m so sorry your sister was pulled away, when she and her family most needed to be real and prepare. no way to change what’s done, but there are better ways to face bad illnesses and end of life.

    i’m all for supporting cancer patients, but the “just think positive” approach is so terrible — it doesn’t just blame the victim, but it helps them die blaming themselves. that is more or less my definition of evil.

  3. Thanks for your comment/link to my “Ode to Oprah” post. You know me, I love a good back and forth discussion. The problem is, I didn’t just bury my sister like you did, so my guess is that this is WAAAAAY too raw of a topic to have a “friendly disagreement” about. I don’t know the details re: her last days – when you’re ready (and with your family’s permission) maybe you should blog about it? That being said, I’m curious if she was straight up praying for a cure, reading novenas, attend a daily mass to recite the rosary or frequently hitting a confessional – would that have been different for you? Would you or do you feel towards priests, rabbis, or pastors the same way you feel about Oprah and the writers of “The Secret”?

    As a person with a progressive neurological disease that will most likely kill me – I get how something like The Secret could eventually be an anchor to grab onto. It’s something to do. Faith isn’t a verb. And when you put it into medicine and then medicine doesn’t work, you switch gears. It makes you feel proactive and in control, even.

    No one can tell me what caused my MS, what course it’ll take and even why the medicine I’m prescribed works. Yet later this morning as I shoot some Copaxone in my ass I will (in a very Oprah inspired manner) visualize a brain scan free of lesions since the 9 I had in 2009, didn’t show up in the 2010 scan. Why? Because the more my medicine works, the worse I feel. My brain is lesion free yet my parathesia, dysphagia and weakness/balance/limping is worse. After yesterday’s 100 degree temperature – I’d chant mantras to Oprah’s big toe if it would change my reality.

    Yet I too feel annoyed that I’m somehow responsible for curing myself. I want to sit on my ass and let modern medicine do all the work. Then someone in a motorized wheelchair zips by me and I’m horrified into looking for another answer (medical or otherwise) while constantly trying to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from MS. Looking for the blessing (another thing Oprah taught us). Wondering if it somehow makes me a better speech therapist or yoga teacher? Wondering if I’ll even give a damn if I find myself in constant pain at some point. Wondering if having 2 autoimmune diseases is some sort of metaphor for my life? Did my negative inner critic take things too far this time? Shit, maybe I did do this to myself?

    Its complicated. I could go on and on, for and against, for sure. Thanks for the interesting and insightful start to my morning.

    • Linda –

      Actually not to raw to discuss. The doc in me fell out of faith in the church of Oprah long before my sis fell ill, and she was into the Secret for years before that with no harm done.

      My issues with Oprah are really mostly professional, and as you can see by the links at the end of this post, and by the excellent post by Jen Gunter last week, I am not alone in this opinion.

      I see no harm in Secret thinking as an adjunct to medical care. If it gets someone off the couch and into the gym, or supports them in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, then that’s good. But it’s philosophy leaves no room for failure, either medically or personally, and ultimately, by placing responsibility on the person for their illness, I believe does a disservice to those who have failed medical treatment for conditions truly outside of their control.

      You are right to be aware of the power that you together have with your docs to stave off this disease you have. But it’s a lesson you may have learned early, but that we all must learn, as we face perhaps not MS, but aging, and arthritis and heart disease, etc.

      Did you do this to yourself – my god no! One day we will find out what causes MS and all the other auto immmune diseases out there, and it will either be a virus or some chemical we’ve introduced into our environment that never should have been there. But don’t you see? That’s where the Secret has failed you – by making you feel in any way responsible for this illness. That’s just plain WRONG.

      Love ya’

      Peggy

  4. I am a Certificated Spiritual Healer in th UK , and #1 Policy is that we work in conjunction with the National Health Service (NHS ) .

  5. Oprah did some cool things, for sure. But she followed all sorts of faddish stuff, more because it was faddish than not. If it sold, she was pretty much willing to use it to sell.

    We need more critical thinking skills at every level and in every context of our culture.

    ps. I hate, HATE, the way medical folks talk about patients “failing” treatment. My friend was told that he “failed” chemo. How cruel is that? No, chemo failed my friend. A patient doesn’t “fail” a chemical. It just doesn’t make sense logically or grammatically.

  6. I don’t really think I caused my MS. I was just illustrating a point. When you’re given a serious diagnosis, it fucks with you. It’s complicated and overwhelming.

    At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for being consumers of information – medical, spiritual or otherwise. But I get why when ones fails you – you’d get desperate and turn to something else.

  7. I’m with you all the way, TBTAM. The problem with Oprah’s “good things” is that they’re used as an access point to believe all the rest of her not-good things. Her championship of a lot of the Suzanne Somers-type nonmedical treatments leads huge numbers of people down the wrong path.
    And how DO we get rid of Dr. Oz????

  8. I’m not too familiar with Oprah’s work, although I’m a big fan of what she accomplished through her book club.

    I read The Secret out of curiosity. I was scandalized (seriously!) but what it said. I talked to friends who swore by it & discovered that they liked it because they didn’t actually understand the msg. They thought of it as a “usefulness of positive thinking” primer and didn’t take it farther than that. The first time it didn’t work for them (ie didn’t cure their infertility, didn’t cure their cfs), they threw it in the trash.

    I’ve never spoken to anyone who read the book, took its claims seriously, and still speaks in favor of it.

    At one point I read an article in which a psychologist, speaking loosely, said “10% of all self-help books are probably harmful, and The Secret would fall into that category.” I would agree, with the disclaimer that lots of people (my friends, for ex.) seem to reject the book’s arguments before doubting themselves.

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