Thursday, December 05, 2013

Guest Post: I Am a Doctor, But I Don't Play One on TV

Today's guest post comes from my friend and colleague Dr. Valerie Taylor. Dr. Taylor is the Psychiatrist-in-chief at Women's College Hospital and an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. She is currently the mental health lead for the Canadian Obesity Network and the Ontario Bariatric Network. Her research and clinical focus is on the overlap between obesity and mental illness, and a while back she told me a story that led me to ask her if she'd be willing to write about it for my blog? She agreed, and while she's left the identify of the Big Food player out, it's the gist here that's important.
Mark Twain has been attributed the quote “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” This is especially relevant in today's environment of medicine as entertainment, both because of its literal applicability and because if in fact it was not his actual quote, he was the celebrity spokesperson that gave it traction. Part of its staying power is because MARK TWAIN said it. That makes it cool.

I have dabbled on the fringes of the health as entertainment market and while I danced with the devil (a reality show host interview and a few questionable media speaking requests), I was unable to commit. In the end, my academic ethics and this uncomfortable feeling that no matter how pretty the wrapping was, ultimately I was being asked to pull a fast one on an unsuspecting population.

This occurred again recently when I was asked to be a spokes person for a large food organization. It sounded good: I simply had to talk about my research and how things like having positive self esteem was helpful for successful weight loss. Well, I believed that. I could support that message. All things were a go.

Then, thankfully, some one gave me some wise advice about reading the fine print. And giving the contract to my hospital lawyer for a once over. It seems that while the company in question was interested in my views on self-esteem and cognitive therapy, they were also interested in product placement and me saying their products caused weight loss and improved self-esteem. Which they do not.

At the 11th hour I once again turned down my chance for fame and fortune on the big screen, only to feel the wrath of said food company. The fact that they were prepared to basically perpetuate a hoax on an unsuspecting population, selling impossible outcomes on the back of my medical education and academic credibility did not really matter. Did I not want to be a star I was asked? Sure that sounds lovely I replied. I do not, however, want to be a charlatan.

Clearly not every M.D endorsing a product has compromised their morals and there are passionate, committed people who believe in what they are doing.

There are also those who use their credentials to add legitimacy to what would in other venues be ridiculed. So be careful what you watch and what you believe. And remember what Mark Twain said. Because if Mark Twain said it it must be true.

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  1. Anonymous7:28 am

    Fantastic post Dr. Taylor!

  2. Rebecca8:27 am

    Especially if Mark Twain said it on the internet!! This is exactly why Dr. Oz has lost all credibility for me, even though his show may occasionally contain a nugget or two of good information (although I don't know that for sure, because I don't watch it anymore). It is obvious he must please the network and advertisers by constantly churning out all sorts of "miracle cures."

  3. Anonymous9:09 am

    You ARE a star Valerie Taylor. Well done.If there ever was a reality show called Read My Ethics, you would earn top billing.

  4. Thank you for your post, it proved my suspitions. I even asked my mom to stop listening for a health advice from a mass-media all together because it is mostly the wrong type of an advice. I will tell you about your story. I saw only once or twice commercials for the food worth consuming - Daisy sour-cream and Kerrygold butter. Even eggs in commercials are vegetarian-fed.

  5. Wow...great post!

    So glad that you saw that trap before you stepped in it....

    Yeah, Dr Oz is a disappointment to me too....more so because when his bit first started, I was excited that he was spending a lot of time helping people confront uncomfortable truths about their health and teaching people to take positive steps in an encouraging and non-judgemental way

    Sadly, network TV runs on money and not ethics, so now he is shilling raspberry ketones and sea buckthorn instead of exercise, calorie management and stress reduction