Three of America's best known TV doctors are taking their medicine after making inflammatory statements about the coronavirus.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Dr. Phil McGraw have all been criticized in recent days for making statements on television and podcasts that appear to downplay the dangers of COVID-19, for buttressing their arguments with bogus statistics, and for making remarks that have been branded as insensitive.
None are experts on pandemics and McGraw isn’t even a medical doctor (he has a doctorate in psychology but is currently not a licensed psychologist). Yet all three weighed in on a pandemic that has paralyzed the country. And Oz was a recent guest on NBC’s "Today" show, talking about the coronavirus.
“What's remarkable in this case is that all three of these folks have gotten into trouble speaking, sometimes in aggressively offensive ways, against the consensus of medical intelligence,” Bob Thompson, a Syracuse University professor and expert on pop culture, said in an email to NBC News. “Part of that may have to do with the fact that they were pandering (in true show business style) to their audience.”
McGraw and Oz were discovered by Oprah Winfrey, added Thompson.
“They were discovered, groomed, and chosen by the standards of show business, not the standards of the American Medical Association,” he said. “The most important skills these guys were chosen for were not their medical abilities (of which they had some), but their bedside manner.”
Dr. Henry I. Miller, a former federal Food and Drug Administration researcher and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, said they are ubiquitous on television because the medium is looking for "pseudo-experts" who reflect the biases of the network or interviewer.
“Among the most egregious examples," he said in an email, "are physicians who endorse products like hydroxychloroquine in the absence of evidence of safety and efficacy from reliable, randomized, controlled clinical trials.”
Oz, in particular, has, like President Donald Trump, touted hydroxychloroquine as a possible coronavirus cure. So too have several Fox News hosts.
“Oz has demonstrated no credibility on any medical subject that I am aware of,” said Miller, who has publicly called Oz a “quack,” an accusation Oz has vehemently denied.
Will they be able to dig out from under this blizzard of criticism? Thompson said they probably would.
“I suspect many of the people who are still watching Oz, Phil, and Drew are watching them because they like them, their format, the way they interact with their guests,” he said. “They will probably forgive them and continue to watch. My guess is that many of the people who are rightfully outraged by the recent comments have been outraged by them before and no longer among their regular viewers.”
Oz this week had to walk back remarks he made Tuesday during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News in which he appeared to suggest that up to three percent of children dying would be an acceptable trade-off for reopening the schools.
“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,” he said. “I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity.”
Oz took to Twitter after he was besieged by criticism.
“I’ve realized my comments on risks around opening school have confused and upset people, which was never my intention,” Oz said. “I misspoke.”
Dr. Oz, through a representative, released a statement to NBC News Friday: “As a heart surgeon, I’ve spent my career fighting to save lives in the operating room by minimizing risks. At the same time, I’m being asked constantly – how will we be able to get people back to their normal lives? To do that… one of the important steps will be figuring out how do we get our children safely back to school. We know for many kids, school is a place of security, nutrition, and learning that is missing right now. These are issues we are all wrestling with and I will continue looking for solutions to beat this virus.”
McGraw, who holds a doctorate in psychology, caught flak for downplaying the coronavirus crisis and for getting some of his numbers wrong during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on Thursday.
“The economy is crashing around us and they’re doing that because people are dying because of coronavirus,” he said. “I get that, but look, the fact of the matter is we have people dying — 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 from swimming pools. But we don’t shut the country down.”
“But yet, we’re doing it for this and the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are being destroyed,” he said.
In the U.S., there was an average of 3,536 deadly drownings from 2005 through 2014, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McGraw released a YouTube video on Friday in which he admitted he botched the interview, used some “probably bad examples,” and misspoke about the number of drowning deaths. He said he supports the CDC recommendations to self-isolate and shutting down the country’s economy to protect all Americans.
Pinsky began getting hit with criticism earlier this month after a social media user compiled the former “Celebrity Rehab” star's comments from February through mid-March in which he called the coronavirus crisis a “press-induced panic” and said the “flu virus in this country is vastly more consequential.”
The ex-“Loveline” host also compared the likelihood of dying from the virus to “being hit by an asteroid.”
Pinsky posted an apology online on April 4.
“My early comments about equating coronavirus with influenza were wrong,” he said. “They were incorrect. I was part of a chorus that was saying that and we were wrong. And I want to apologize for that. I wish I got it right, but I got it wrong.”