Celebrities Crossing the Line on Medical Advice
Jenny McCarthy tells the public to stop vaccines as it can contribute to autism, while Brooke Shields speaks out about postpartum depression and Michael J. Fox shares his struggle with Parkinson's disease and the need for stem cell research. Doctors and researchers are acknowledging that people are paying attention to these celebrities.
It helps people to realize that health problems they have affect even celebrities," says pediatrician Aaron Carroll, director of Indiana University's Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. "Knowing that a rich and famous person can have the same problem as you or me makes it seem more fair, maybe.” Carroll continues, "It also can make it easier to talk about your own problem, because a celebrity has the same issue."
The concern comes from celebrities need to get their facts right, says Bradford Hesse, who studies health communication at the National Cancer Institute. Many doctors and medical experts are very troubled by stars who cross the line from sharing their stories to championing questionable or even dangerous medical advice.
In 2005 Scientologist and actor publically railed against antidepressants and Brook Shields for sharing she had postpartum depression. He dismissed psychiatry as a "pseudoscience." Actress Jenny McCarthy, who has an autistic son, has publically linked autism with childhood vaccinations.
Doctors and public health groups say they struggle over the best way to respond to celebrity claims. Celebrities have the power to do tremendous good, Hesse says. Lance Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer, has advocated for funding and policy changes to help cancer patients and has raised more than $325 million through his foundation.
"People like Katie Couric and Lance Armstrong can do a lot to teach people that it is important to talk to their doctors about screening for cancer," Hesse says. "Some would say they have done more for the cause of public awareness for cancer than most scientists."
Still the medical community is concerned about misinformation and trying to correct that misinformation. “Even with a mountain of evidence it can be a challenge,” says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It's much easier to scare people than to un-scare them," Offit says.
Some psychologists say that celebrity activists are part of a larger trend, in which survivors of serious illness feel less of a stigma about speaking out and find it therapeutic to help others in a similar situation. "Giving to other people has a profound way of rewarding us," says the NCI's Julia Rowland. "It's a way to make meaning out of a situation.” She says, “You tell other people how to cope, and it helps you cope, too."
"If someone has a heartfelt belief that something ought to be on the radar screen of America, they ought to put it out there, because believe me, other people are saying it anyway," says Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon and host of The Dr. Oz Show. "I'd rather have it come up publicly and have Larry King have a debate about it." Studies have shown that doctors still have an influence on people. About 68% of people trust their doctors according to a 2007 survey by the NCI, however, it seems like people are placing some of their trust in celebrities when it comes down to medical advice.