I went to medical school a long time ago. In another millennium, on another coast, in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned, back in the dark ages before Twitter, and even Facebook. But the information I’ve learned since then has more than made up for what I’ve lost. I work in an academic medical center, where the professorial track supports (and mandates) peer-reviewed research, publication, teaching, administrative work, and clinical productivity. Like it or not, we’re always learning. I have been so immersed in this microcosm that the world around me sometimes seems surreal. Thankfully, I have social media and living in Los Angeles to keep me grounded in the bizarre.
Medical and health wisdom apparently have less and less to do with being a doctor, and more and more to do with having an audience. One can safely say that said audience is (rightly) in it for the performance — of the politician, the actor, or the athlete. And if wisdom does come from a doctor, that doctor had better have a major network or a hot-selling product to back him or her up. Sadly, people actually take to heart the words of wisdom from those with custom-made suits, buff bodies, or surgically tightened faces.
I remember my first brush with a non-medical person touting medical knowledge. No, it wasn’t Jenny McCarthy spewing dangerous nonsense about the perceived dangers of vaccines. It was our beloved former president, who I hold in highest esteem, Barack Obama. In his efforts to revolutionize healthcare by cutting costs and unnecessary treatments, he used the example that having a few sore throats does not mean you need a tonsillectomy. He implied that jumping right to surgery was an overused, expensive option. The Ear, Nose, and Throat community was up in arms over this. Tonsillectomy, while a common procedure, has known significant risks, one of which is death. It carries with it extremely low reimbursement, and high maintenance to the family during the peri-operative period. It ain’t botox. Surgeons who are still performing tonsillectomies do so because we think it will help. It’s not a money-maker, and we don’t rush into it to treat sore throats. We surgeons let his brief comment slide. He was, after all, not a doctor, and was only trying to make a point that we should cut costs. He likely just needed a better medical advisor that week.
Over the more recent years, I have found my head spinning when I hear people speak with such conviction about medical and health choices. They don’t ask — they tell. “I take immune boost powder in my green tea so I don’t get sick. And drinking green tea means I won’t get breast cancer.” “I give my kids omega-3 for focus.” “I don’t get the flu shot because it makes me get the flu. Plus I don’t believe in the flu shot.” It’s not a religious school class on belief in a higher being! (I say this to myself, of course — although some folks may claim to have superpowers to read my thoughts if they’ve had enough goji berries in their morning scam shake). I don’t care what you believe in. That’s none of my business.
But science is not a belief. It is not a religion, an opinion, or a style choice. Then again, maybe it is. Maybe the problem with so many highly educated, privileged people feeling the need to detox their liver by drinking some crap, making up a “gentle” vaccine schedule for their immune-sensitive kids, and cutting out dairy to fight colds, is that they need something to believe. Maybe doctors have succumbed to the Yelp culture, fear of bad reviews, negative survey results of their “clients” (oh, how I hate that term when referring to patients) that we as a profession have taken to kowtowing to patients and their beliefs.
We can’t simply say, “You’re an idiot! There is no evidence under the sun that delaying vaccines is anything but dangerous to your child and those around him.” Or “Your liver and your kidney are detox centers, and your gastrointestinal tract is a juicer! Save your time and money and chew your food, eat like a human, and get over yourself!” “And no, eating like a human does not mean you eat a human, so don’t’ eat your placenta!” Instead, when we hear this drivel, in the office, at school drop-offs, soccer fields, social gatherings, or birthday parties, we are polite. We smile, look interested, and offer our thoughts (beliefs!) if asked. Usually we are not asked, as statements are now said with such authority, there is nothing to question. But if you do ask my medical opinion, (belief!) I will tell you: You will never look like Gwyneth Paltrow or Alicia Silverstone. And they do not look the way they do because of their products. Remember “Shakespeare in Love”? Pre-Goop. And “Clueless”? Indeed, she is.