No match for Dr Fauci – are TV Doctors like Dr Phil causing more harm than good?

<span>Photograph: Nina Prommer/EPA</span>
Photograph: Nina Prommer/EPA

Last week, a group of actors known for their roles as fictional medical professionals on television released a video on Instagram thanking the real doctors on the frontlines fighting against the pandemic, raising money on their behalf.

Olivia Wilde of House, Scrubs stars Zach Braff and Donald Faisona, Nurse Jackie’s Edie Falco, Julianna Margulies and Maura Tierney of ER, and others, came together to share a message of support for doctors and nurses, and joked in a way best summed up by Neil Patrick Harris: “I’m not a doctor, but I was paid to be one on TV.”

Basically, they said, we don’t know what we’re talking about. Listen to the experts.

The four-minute video, which attempted to relay no scientific opinions about the merits of this or that hypothetical treatment, was actually more worthwhile than some of the so-called experts we’re seeing on television right now. If nothing else, at the very least the fictional doctors appeared to be abiding by the foundational philosophy of doctors everywhere: first, do no harm.

Which brings us to the television doctors appearing on cable news now – the ones that exist in a bizarre realm halfway between fiction and authenticity.

The latest to wade into the waters of fantasy is Dr Phil McGraw, erstwhile beloved television personality, who holds a doctorate in psychology – an honor for which is not currently licensed to practice – and has no expertise whatsoever in infectious diseases.

Attempting to downplay the threat of Covid-19, McGraw analogized it to other causes of death on Laura Ingraham’s programme on Fox News. “Forty-five thousand people a year die from automobile accidents; 480,000 from cigarettes; 360,000 a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that,” he said, overstating that last statistic by a factor of 10. “But yet we’re doing it for this? And the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are being destroyed.”

The two did not address whether or not swimming accidents are highly contagious.

It was unclear why Ingraham didn’t have Dr Anthony S Fauci, leader of the White House coronavirus taskforce, stick around to answer questions after he appeared in a previous segment. Unsurprisingly, her interview with the actual expert was more contentious than the one with the guy who was closer to the Fox News party line: that this is all too much ado about nothing.

Earlier this week, the TV personality and surgeon Dr Mehmet Oz had also appeared on Sean Hannity’s program to speculate on how many dead children he’d be willing to sacrifice at the altar of the economy.

“Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation, where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble,” Oz told Hannity. “I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in the Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3% in terms of total mortality. And, you know, that’s – any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into a school where they’re safely being educated, being fed and making the most out of their lives with a theoretical risk in the back side, it might be a trade-off some folks would consider.” (He has since said that he had “misspoke”.)

Oz, who like McGraw is a former Oprah Winfrey protege, has also been featured heavily on NBC’s coverage of the pandemic. And while his scientific expertise may be stronger than McGraw’s, he’s come under no shortage of criticism from colleagues over the years for favoring questionably scientific cures and products.

Other doctors favored by Fox News and President Trump have spread a lot of questionable information as well, including Dr Marc Siegel. Although he’s changed his tune more recently, back in March Siegel said on Fox News that “the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.

Dr Drew Pinksy, another celebrity doctor, also apologized after a compilation of statements he made in the run-up to the coronavirus were compiled on social media. He had called the pandemic “a press-induced panic” and said the odds of dying from it were similar to being hit by an asteroid.

It can be hard to sort fact from fiction from speculation during these truly frightening times. When the messaging coming from the likes of Doogie Howser MD is, at the very least, more trustworthy than some of the other doctors on TV, it’s all the more scary.