TV Talk Show Hosts: Stop Giving Medical Advice
If television hosts want to dispense medical counsel on their shows, they should be held accountable legally for the quality of information they’re disseminating. Pro or con?
Pro: Words Can Wound Your Health
Let’s say that you want to give out medical advice as part of your job. You could go to college, train for more than a decade, and earn your right to practice medicine. Should you get it wrong and harm a patient, you’ll be sued. And if the offense is grave enough, your license to give medical advice will be taken away. Or you could just become a talk show host and promote anything that catches your eye with almost total impunity, be it telling parents not to vaccinate their kids or recommending that older fans inject themselves full of hormones to stay young for an extra decade or two. Hey, it works for Oprah.
But wait a second. Why do we hold our medical professionals to such high standards when it takes a huge and revealing cover story in Newsweek to even mention that talk show hosts probably shouldn’t dispense medical tips unless they’re fully qualified M.D.s or R.N.s? It’s one thing to recommend a gadget or a book. But when it comes to giving health advice, the stakes skyrocket. Viewers could seriously harm themselves.
Talk show stars who promote quack medicine as a revolutionary new development should be held liable for the damage their fans may inflict on themselves by taking their advice. Playing doctor on TV might get you good ratings, but if you don’t have the proper education, you’re a public health hazard, pure and simple.
Let’s Not Imperil Free Speech
Sure, it seems outrageous that talk show hosts can go on TV and tell viewers they should wish their cancer away or undergo painful plastic surgeries without reporting side effects. They owe their audience some due diligence. But lawsuits aren’t the answer.
In doling out medical advice, TV hosts don’t treat their audience in the same way that doctors treat their patients—no personal contact, no one-on-one advice—so suing for malpractice would be out of the question.
So then what? Should viewers be able to sue over bad advice? Absolutely not, says Jack Doppelt, a First Amendment lawyer and professor at the Medill School of Journalism. "I really would be spooked by any case that stretched the law in that direction," he says. "That would be chilling for free speech."
A single case could set a huge precedent—opening the door for lawsuits over medical advice, financial advice, you name it. And while you may not look to Oprah or Maury Povich for your health care needs, setting this sort of precedent could inhibit the ability of journalists to report on the latest heath news, a valuable service to the community, to say nothing of how it could inhibit businesses like WebMD, which make their money off of Internet diagnoses.
Allowing lawsuits over bad medical advice on TV could seriously stifle free speech and limit the good advice that many Americans so desperately need.