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Doctor or celebrity?Medical associations set global guidelines for ‘show doctors’
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2017.02.27 14:39
  • Updated 2017.03.03 09:10
  • comments 0

Doctors treat sick people for their health and well-being, while show hosts entertain the public for their amusement. When doctors try to entertain the mass, the border lines get blurred.

The ongoing convergence of medicine and media has posed a new ethical problem – M.D’s on television began advertising medical products and treatments not approved by the medical community, often for personal gains.

Show doctors sell products on home shopping channels.

To solve this issue, the World Medical Association adopted “guidelines on promotional mass media appearances by physicians,” during its 66th General Assembly held in Moscow in 2015. The WMA guidelines called for accurate and objective delivery of scientifically proven medical information, not abusing mass media as a means of advertisement, and maintaining professional integrity.

The Korean Medical Association initiated these efforts to prevent physicians from advertising unapproved medical information, products and techniques by first creating guidelines on mass media appearances by doctors in 2014, the journal said.

These efforts originated in Korea as a response to “show doctors,” a term coined to describe doctors who “frequently appear on mass media and recommend unproven treatments or products for marketing purposes,” according to the Journal of Korean Medical Science (JKMS).

One such example was a doctor who has introduced “Eoseongcho (houttuynia cordata) shampoo.” The physician appeared on a series of TV shows to promote his cure-all shampoo against baldness. He also claimed false medical treatments for hair growth, including the positive impact of performing handstands, saying it would concentrate blood to the head and strengthen hair regeneration.

The public is susceptible to health fads propagated by television M.D.s because they trust doctors and broadcasters. Other doctors are angry, concerned about exacerbated patient-doctor relationships as well as the progression of disease complications and ill effects from following alternative medical treatment.

These show doctors exist in media around the world. Take “Dr. Oz,” a cardiothoracic surgeon, a professor at Columbia University, and the host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” a daily television program focusing on medical issues and personal health. Despite his popularity, the British Medical Journal disproved around 46 percent of Dr. Oz’s claims in 2014.

Shin Hyun-young, a family physician and professor at Myongji Hospital, was a central member of working out the unprecedented ethical guidelines, organizing a task force with a group of doctors in 2015.

“We created these guidelines from scratch,” Shin said. “Guidelines for media and health were non-existent at that time, but we could push this through because we had unanimous support from all parties involved -- doctors, media and citizens who wanted to know what was real.”

Once it set the guidelines, KMA cracked down on the show doctors who violated the new rules. There was some backlash from these doctors, some of whom pushed ahead with their promotional appearances on news media, but most other doctors hailed the ethical movement as a game-changer in the industry.

“These guidelines are symbolic because they were created for doctors -- and by doctors,” Shin said. “We have seen positive changes, as doctors become self-aware when they go on TV, and citizens do not believe everything they see on television, and writers are more careful writing their scripts.”

Because these guidelines were unheard of on the global scale, KMA decided to contribute internationally, submitting them to WMA in February 2015, and the latter adopted the proposal six months later, in a far shorter period given it usually takes two years to approve such proposals.

Shin was rather cautious, however, saying “Guidelines can’t change everything” and acknowledging a slew of challenges facing them. “Even though we do enforce these rules in Korea, there is no proper monitoring of this policy elsewhere. Doctors still face ethical problems in media,” she said.

Shin pointed to the problem of realistically implementing these standards in the media, saying that “doctors could, for example, clash with producers who want to entertain, not inform citizens. Government and doctors need to work together to improve the quality of health information in media.”

The movements made a good start for maintaining professional physician ethics. Most doctors, however, will have to walk a fine line in media ethics for some time – struggling to balance public good with personal gains, industry watchers said.


<© Korea Biomedical Review, All rights reserved.>

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