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Perspectives

The Damage of Letting Celebrities Speak for Our Field

April 27, 2020

“We probably shouldn’t have ever started this,” Dr. Phil McGraw suggested in a TV interview on April 16 in reference to stay-at-home orders based on the pandemic. He bemoaned that we are keeping people “locked up.” He cited genuine statistics on the health risks associated with loneliness, while misusing and distorting other data. I would ignore him if not for the fact that in some sense he speaks for me.

His comments contradict guidance from public health experts. His ideas were widely presented in news stories alongside equally alarming statements by Dr. Oz. I am less concerned about Dr. Oz since he does not represent my field and plenty of physicians fill media spots to counter his pontificating. Behavioral health has few professional voices. Each one matters greatly.

The celebrity professional is generally skilled at using scientific data to support opinions, often making an opinion seem to be a scientific pronouncement. If you missed Dr. Phil’s comments, this quote includes his earnest abuse of facts to support a counter-scientific opinion:

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 a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that. But yet we are doing it for this, and the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are being destroyed.

The national debate when he spoke centered around the best timing for the country to ease back into normal social practices. He was on the leading edge of those making an argument for quickly ending the quarantine, but more importantly, he was arguing that it was never really justified. His “scientific” guidance was that stay-at-home orders were both unjustified and more destructive than the virus.

His arrogance was still on display the next day during his YouTube show with an apology which was just more of the same. He apologized only for “his choice of words” since his “number one concern” is the health of people watching and listening. He reiterated his core scientific idea: “I know that the longer we stay in quarantine, the more psychological issues we’ll have.”

The beauty of his scientific argument is that it is not subject to empirical validation. Many people will surely have psychological issues whatever is done, and we can only speculate about prevalence rates with any action. Social policy is not hypothesis testing. Yet celebrity professionals are given the opportunity use their favorite theories and findings to promote bold actions for people and countries.

The mainstream media seized on the problem, but not quite my problem with all of this. Reporters from the Washington Post noted that Dr. Phil later admitted he had used an inflated number of drowning deaths and that his comparisons to smoking and driving weren’t quite on point. Yet the Post focused on the general problem of using experts in the media:

Television rewards the ability to speak in sound bites, and to opine confidently and comfortably on camera, regardless of expertise. Even before television, the practice of elevating the famous to presumed expert status was a long and checkered practice; advertisements have traded on famous names for hundreds of years, whether or not the celebrity had any special knowledge or experience.

This critique is both true and feeble. It suggests mild exasperation with distortions from celebrity experts, and an acceptance that nothing will change. If this is the reality of mass media, then I suggest the behavioral healthcare field should find and promote better experts. The public is bombarded with contradictory ideas from both genuine and pseudo experts. Our field needs to directly speak for itself.

Dr. Phil is primarily a celebrity with a brand to maintain. He is the brash therapist, warm or confrontive by turns, but always ready to give bold advice whether it is easy or hard to take. He does not represent our field any more than Dr. Melfi’s work with Tony Soprano represented a typical therapy session. Behavioral healthcare needs some engaging media professionals sharing our boring truths.

What are the boring truths? Seeing an issue from both sides, sharing relevant data that informs but rarely settles a debate, and suggesting a path to a decision or a point of view in a complex reality. Why is this worth the time and attention of our industry? Cultural beliefs matter. People in leadership roles in politics, in healthcare, and in finance will make big decisions impacting us based on such beliefs.

I have seen the power of lobbying and media communications at different points in my career, and never more impressively than in the decade leading to the federal parity law. While lawmakers were the main audience then, the exposure is the same. The media search every day for experts on stories, and they will use credible industry voices along with their reliance on celebrities.

Behavioral healthcare executives should assemble leaders willing to speak with the media on a regular basis. This group should include leaders from other segments of behavioral healthcare, including payer systems, professional associations, and consumer organizations. A joint communication strategy should be crafted. This sort of collaboration was used to great success in the parity campaign.

There are underlying conflicts among the parties that participate in such a collaborative effort. They can promote their specific interests as well at any time they choose. The reality is that if we don’t speak for ourselves, then others will seem to represent us. Dr. Phil speaks for himself first and foremost, and it should bother us that to a large extent the public will judge our work by his words.

Ed Jones, PhD, is senior vice president for the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.

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