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

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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.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Neil Raden

The state of medical reporting in the media in general is alarming. I've read headlines in the NYT that are completely the opposite conclusion from the body of the article. Media is funded by advertising. Health care, pharmaceuticals in particular, support broadcast and print media. What do you expect? So, no, I think there is a better [chance] you'll get a balanced perspective from a one-hour Oprah show than you will from Pat Wingert's blindingly biased broadsides in Newsweek.

I myself

WebMD provides a public forum to give the hypochondriac in all of us a little bit of direction on whether our problems are serious enough to see an actual doctor. There is also an opportunity for criticism. Has anyone ever walked onto Oprah's show and gone after Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz for some of the things they say? Funny that the longer people sit around their house watching medical shows, the more likely they are to need the medical treatment they're hearing about. We need to break free from the television set--it is not the life-saving wonder contraption that so many make it out to be.

Squeezebox

We don't need censorship; we need to consider the source. If Oprah's saying that a spoonful of raw honey will keep you healthy, you consider it like your neighbor's grandma's second cousin's advice--with a grain of salt. On the other hand, if an MD such as Dr. Oz says on Oprah's show that a spoonful of raw honey a day will keep you healthy, you're much more likely to benefit from the advice.

Joel Sax

Holding people accountable for the damage done by what they say isn't censorship anymore than laws of libel are: They are necessary balances to a society where free discourse is the rule of the day. I think there is a fine parallel here to the law of libel: If you say something that is maliciously false, then you are accountable. Let's say a television host says driving nails into your temple permanently relieves headaches and urges viewers to do so. A few do and they die. There's a bone-headed defense that says the listeners are the victims, but it is clear that the television host was the influence that put the idea in their head. Say this television host continues to make pronouncements about various quack cures that cost lives or maim or disfigure listeners. How do you stop this monster? Free speech without accountability will ultimately undermine itself. We need to patrol our own by some, carefully constructed means.

Stephen - NYC

Just because somebody named Dr. Oz says it's ok, doesn't make it so. The fact that he's on a TV talk show makes him a shill. If he were my doctor and I asked him about, then he'd be answering as a doctor to a patient and he'd be responsible for his answer. Him just talking to the audience (in-studio and the broadcast one) makes him entertainment (and not very good at that).

Strategery

Stephen hinted at what TV really is: entertainment (and a tool to control and dumb-down the masses, but that's another issue). If you take financial advice, medical advice, legal advice, or even cooking instructions and the "news" at face value, then you are a fool.

Despite the bad medical advice, there is some good advice out there. Who would argue against wearing sunscreen, getting checkups, or getting screened for cancer or other diseases? Again, you must do your homework and decide for yourself.

Marcellinus

Of course wearing sunscreen, getting checkups, or getting screened for cancer or other diseases are good, but there are some that are also malicious, even without the intent to be so. There is why we need accountability to balance things out.

Strategery or whoever you are, everyone is not as smart as you. People may take things differently. If you do the right things, others don't inevitably do the same. We need something to protect the "fool."

TOMW

Personally, I think anybody who is so intellectually vapid as to watch Oprah on a regular basis and accept as truth any "advice" or "information" contained therein, deserves no better.

Eno

Medical advice on the TV cannot be a substitute to geting real help from your personal doctor. You can always be informed of new medications or techniques on TV, but one must always ask ask a real doctor before trying anything.

If I am not wrong, those TV shows always display those tiny letters at the bottom of the screen warning viewers of not starting a medical regime without consulting their doctors. In other words, you must always consult your doctor before trying anything you see on TV.

BradS

I totally agree with TOMW. Also, viewers need to remember TV talk shows are primarily entertainment and take whatever information is provided with a grain of salt.

Anna

A profit driven and corrupt medical system is a big problem. Drugs and surgery are over-prescribed even when it is not in the patient's best interest, because money can be made. Doctors receive payola from pharmaceutical companies. The FDA is packed with doctors and scientists who are also receiving payola. We need the occasional voice from anywhere in the public domain that raises questions and suggest possible alternatives. Sometimes those voices will be wrong--but do not silence the critics of the established medical system. We need them in order to improve our medical system.

jeffreyjay

I watched the ABC Evening News for the first time ever this past Friday and was stunned to see all the pharmaceutical adverts. We are surely becoming a nation of "comfortably numb." I stopped watching Network TV 33 years ago. Think for yourself, and you will find out that you have to struggle to be free.

DanTe

Talk shows, infomercials, et al, should be allowed to dispense any type of health advice they want. The more imbeciles that die off from listening to them, the better off the human genome will be. In the long run, it might even be cheaper on Social Security payments and Medicare/Medicaid--as long as once they chose "alternative medicine" they be barred from normal medicine.

Janice198896

Yes, I think all of what you said is completely right.

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