How Jenny McCarthy became a medical thought leader

The mere mention of Jenny McCarthy gets an immediate eye roll from many physicians.   The closer their practice is to autism or immunology, the more likely the eye roll turns into a lecture on why Ms. Playboy should focus on what she knows.

The problem is that “Ms. Playboy” is kicking the medical profession’s behind on thought leadership.  Jenny McCarthy has become a – if not the – leading voice regarding autism issues, particularly the possible link between autism and immunizations.  No, she is not a physician; but her leadership has been heralded on dozens (maybe hundreds) of programs discussing autism, including ABC News, Fox News, Oprah, Larry King, 20/20 and The View.  Diane Sawyer said on national television that “no one has made us more aware of autism and raised more questions than Jenny McCarthy.”

Did you hear that?  “No one …”  Not a licensed physician, not a tireless researcher, not a genius academic – no one.  And autism is not unique, the same can be said for cancer research (Lance Armstrong), erectile dysfunction (Bob Dole), medical marijuana (Montel Williams), weight loss (Carrie Fisher), migraine treatment (Marcia Cross), rheumatoid arthritis (Kathleen Turner), Parkinson’s disease (Michael J. Fox), neutropenia (Rob Lowe), etc.  When it comes to celebrities and causes, the list truly goes on and on.

You may be asking, “How did we get here?”  For me, the answer is pretty simple:  Physicians are horrible at grass-roots thought leadership – i.e., conversing with the non-doctor masses.  Physicians may be highly educated and deeply care about their specialty; but the idea of joining the masses to discuss medical issues in the press, on a blog or in a social media community is subject to a thousand pathetic excuses (It’s too much work . . . Its unseemly . . . I’m not that interesting . . . It will violate HIPAA, etc., etc., etc.).

Jenny McCarthy’s strength is that she doesn’t just join in the conversation — she assaults it.  She has publicly joined an autism organization, she participates in social media, she writes books and articles, she reaches out to the press and she has a marketing strategy.  It even looks like she is going to have her own talk show.

“Aha!” Your internal marketing excuse machine says, “I am not a celebrity so you can’t expect me to compete with Jenny McCarthy or any of her Hollywood brethren!”  OK . . . so you might not get you own talk show, but let’s start simple:  Have you taken the time to simply join – or even investigate – a Facebook group relevant to your specialty?  Have you seen what the masses are saying and offered to their conversation a few supportive, maybe even innovative, thoughts.  Have you guest-written an article for a patient-oriented magazine or a blog?  Have you ever “Tweeted” an interesting article, adding just 140 characters of your own commentary?  Do you answer medical questions from every day people online?

Asked another way:  Do you engage in grass-roots thought leadership at all?

The sad answer for most physicians is “no.”  In addition to the many excuses mentioned above, physicians will often say that, if they are going to engage in any thought leadership, it is going to be to impress their peers not Diane Sawyer.  As one physician said to me after a recent speech on this topic, “The problem is that there are so many asses in the masses.”  While I agree that peer thought leadership is massively important, viewing it as the *only* meaningful form of thought leadership invokes the oxymoronical intersection of naiveté and hubris.

How medical conditions and treatments are often researched, funded and understood is largely driven by how the “masses” understand those issues.  If physicians don’t speak up – don’t learn how to be thought leaders at the grass-roots level — then the ones who are talking will control the conversation, no matter how misinformed.  Jenny McCarthy seized control of the autism conversation because there was no physician already guiding it or even willing to equally jump in once Ms. McCarthy’s assault began.  Whether her assault was empirical or accurate is irrelevant.  Ms. McCarthy assumed the role of thought leader and physicians sat back and scoffed.  Score:  Ms. McCarthy – 1; medical profession – 0.

With the speed of information transfer on the Internet, especially social media, only more and more laypeople are going to become grass-roots thought leaders regarding medical issues.  Rather than wondering who the next Jenny McCarthy will be, you may want to wonder who the medical profession’s grass-roots thought leaders are and should be.  Should it be you?  Have you done anything to join the conversation?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions today, that’s fine.  But if you don’t figure them out tomorrow, then please don’t complain when you find one of Jenny’s Manolo Blahnik pumps swinging for your behind.

Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a free resource that rates and profiles 90% of all doctors and lawyers in the U.S.

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