Are TV Doctors Doing Good?

It is valuable that basic health issues get exposure, though it seems the formula for a massive audience necessarily involves some degree of sensationalizing and emotional pandering.
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One day at my parent's house, I noticed a receipt for a $17 jar of nut butter

There must be some mistake, I thought. My mother is cost-conscious; a woman with a pile of paper-clipped coupons lining her car's glove compartment. When I asked her about it, she assured me that the price was indeed right -- and, more importantly, completely worth it. One man had convinced her of this: Dr. Oz.

And she wasn't the only one shelling out that much for sandwich spread. It took over two weeks for the Nuttzo spread to arrive in the mail because the distributor couldn't keep up with the demand after an appearance on the daytime health guru's show. 

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The pros and cons of TV doctors, especially the holy ratings trinity of Oz, Drew, and Phil has long been debated. From the sex advice of Dr. Ruth, to the nutritional recommendations of Dr. Oz, we the viewer have a long and complex history with the supposed medical experts we see on TV. However, with the recent proliferation of medical reality television, from the daytime's roundtable gabfest, The Doctors to Bravo's LA Shrinks, which chronicles the patients and personal lives of a trio of Californian psychologists, we're letting more health professionals on to the airwaves and into our living rooms than ever before. And we're responding with not only the decisions we make and the dollars we spend, but also the emotions we feel.

An excellent, nearly 9,000-word profile of Dr. Oz in the February issue of the New Yorker explored the doctor's devoted, often fanatical following. His show averages nearly three million viewers a day. While Oz has been accused of using incomplete and shoddy data (especially in nutritional information and GMOs), that doesn't seem to have undermined his popularity. Buying nutrient-rich peanut butter may be a harmless, actually health-improving purchase, but how does the average person know how to evaluate broader medical claims? And does their aura of celebrity hinder or bolster the trust viewers place in these supposed health gurus regardless of medical credibility?

Back in 2011 outraged parents protested popular brands of apple juice with supposedly high levels of arsenic, despite FDA claiming confidence in the safety of those products. I was a proofreader for a popular parenting blog when the infamous apple juice episodes aired. But regardless of the accuracy and science behind Oz's claims, panic emerged in both supermarket aisles and the comments section.

She was the fifth patient on Celebrity Rehab to die in the past two years from complications from addiction or mental illness.

Earlier this year, a national survey of over 2,000 people, conducted by online doctor reviewing and rating service, Vitals, found that 71 percent of patients care more about their "emotional connection" with a doctor than the doctor's actual credentials. And this is reverberating across the airwaves. Through his nice-guy appeal and ready-for-the-camera good looks, Oz cultivates an aura of concern, comfort, and trust. Combine that with sensationalized apple juice reporting, and it's easy to see how he plays off of fears and desires, rather than appealing purely to intellect.

This kind of medical provocation isn't limited to the cult of Oz -- nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Overall it can be valuable that basic health issues get exposure, even if they are presented in a way that's sensationalized and emotionally pandering. When Katie Couric got a colonoscopy on the Today Show over 10 years ago, she inspired an audience of millions. There was reportedly a 20 percent increase in the procedures in the years that followed.

Presented by

Jessica Gentile is a writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Paste magazine, xoJane.com, and Nerve.

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