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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  • Anonymous

    The thing you’ve forgotten to say is that Jenny McCarthy, through having a child with autism dealt with a lot of pain and searching. She may not have scientific training but I’m sure once she was in the middle of her family situation she was forced to immerse herself and there’s not a lot of good research being done right now so unfortunately she latched on to something that may be less beneficial overall, ie blaming vaccines. Calling her a “nobody” is a slap in the face to all parents of children with chronic conditions as well as the patients that are trying to get on board with the e-patient/PM movement. Incidentally I find that the vast majority of medical professionals are completely ignorant about autism and always assume that only a child psychiatrist should need to know anything about it. Jenny has every right to talk about what has helped her family but if you’re serious about wanting the medical community to be leaders in autism, then it needs to start in med school training and the realization the kids with autism eventually grow up. There isn’t much EBM literature for medical professionals to advise parents. Unfortunately the majority of funding is being spent on genetic research which borders on eugenics…

  • mem_somerville

    Yeah? Sounds great. But you know what happens to public health folks who start blogging and tweeting in some cases, right? Check out #EpiGate for the backstory on that. Threatened and silenced.

    And that’s even if you have authorization to blog/tweet/whatever. 

    Who wants to invite that kind of drama that this topic yields–or raw milk, or whatever? 

    I wish more public health folks were out in front on social media. But there’s very little protection for them, and very little benefit as far as I can see. 

  • Sara Stein MD

    A perfect example of why physicians might want to partake in social media. People respond to the power of a human, heartfelt story rather than dry research data. We as physicians are remiss if we are passionate about health education, and handicap our delivery because of fear, disdain or tradition.

    I’ll take it a step further. We have a responsibility to disseminate credible medical information particularly on the internet, because there is SO much bad information out there.

    I’m on FB and twitter and LinkedIn most days, even if just for five minutes to see what information I can share. For doctors who are uncertain, join the HealthCare Social Media chat on twitter – Sundays 8 Central – (go to and enter HCSM or and search #HCSM).

    There are some esteemed physicians, scientists and administrators, as well as empowered patients (e-patients), all discussing the proper use of social media for doctors.

    It’s not going away, might as well join them!

  • Jonathan Marcus

    I couldn’t agree more.  I am a physician and am beginning to explore these grassroots venues.  It is sad that doctors tend to be one of the last to get on board anything new.  I can’t believe the number of my colleagues that think that there’s nothing wrong with sugar and refined carbohydrate and still recommend five to ten servings of bread and cereal per day.  Times are changing rapidly and we must change as well.  Our role in society is timeless but our mean to achieve it must adapt.  Doctors need to learn marketing 101 as all the great info in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans if no one is listening.

  • Bubba Malone

    If anything, Jenny McCarthy is an example of the dangers of social media and the Internet itself.   It’s one thing to push for responsible research and medicine as an advocate.  It’s another for people like Jenny McCarthy to go with her “gut” and not the actual scientific research that is out there on the subject of autism.  By pushing people away from vaccines and making a false connection between them and autism, she’s helping damage public health.  Even if it gets spread like wildfire, bad information is bad information.   

  • Bubba Malone

    It should also be noted that Jenny McCarthy has pushed work and money away from LEGITIMATE research into autism and by pushing more and more money toward quacks who offer “cures” for the condition.   Just like any other difficult and traumatic medical condition, people are looking for answers and they tend to look toward the people who are confident they can help them, even if those people are lying and selling snake oil.   Jenny McCarthy is a celebrity, not a scientist or a doctor.  Undermining their work only serves her own ego and not the health of people with autism, or kids whose health is put at risk because of her work toward promoting a false vaccine autism link.   McCarthy and others like her can badmouth “Big Pharma” and doctors as money hungry and only interested in profit, but refuses to get into discussions about legitimate science.  It’s worth noting that the McCarthy isn’t shy about promoting her own interests and those of others who profit off of autism.   In the end we should look to what the science tells us, not a self educated celebrity.  

  • Russ

    Jenny McCarthy, although a passionate, heartfelt woman (who has sadly had to experience the pain and heartache of being a mother with a beautiful son who has autism—and she has served him bravely, and done so very much to make the public aware of autism and push to understand it and try and figure out how she can help find solutions) is simply just plain wrong about vaccines. The science continues to be clear–childhood vaccines are not the culprit–and Ms. McCathy is just plain wrong. Sadly she steers other vulnerable parents and their children away from helpful medical practices in her pursuit of pseudo-science. So ultimately, Ms. McCarthy does more harm than good.  

  • NickiW

    Did you just spell HIPAA wrong? And did an “editor” not catch it?

    • kevinmd

      It’s fixed, thanks for pointing it out.


  • Jason V. Terk

    As a pediatrician, I very much understand and live the struggle to provide vaccines to my patients in the milieu of fears about vaccine safety. People like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey are demonstrably skilled at messaging and convincing masses of people that they should distrust the science of vaccines and proof of their safety. The power of the emotionally wrought anecdote to overcome dry evidence is well-founded. Doubts about vaccine safety have existed as long as vaccines and McCarthy stands in a long line of demagogues who have spoken out and undermined the public good that vaccines do.

    We physicians do need to articulate the message of the good that vaccines do much more effectively than we have done. However, we should NEVER share the same platform as Jenny McCarthy for 2 important reasons:

    1. She and her kind will always be better in a shared venue at articulating the emotional anecdote than we can ever be at explaining the science as far as moving public opinion is concerned. Emotion ALWAYS trumps data in these head to head debates.

    2. We physicians must reserve for ourselves the platform to express the truth through science about vaccines. We must remain the trusted leaders who can be relied upon to speak the truth when the public decides again to listen to us over the din of the McCarthy echo chamber.

    Unfortunately, if history is to be our guide, we physicians may not enjoy the adoration/attention of the media (Diane Sawyer) until the resultant body count from the public’s omission of providing vaccines occurs. Then, we must provide the same consistent message based upon good science that we have always done and discredit the demagogues as being complicit in the unnecessary and preventable deaths that occur from following their message.

    Jason V. Terk, M.D.
    Chair, Council on Science and Public Health
    Texas Medical Association

  • Matthew Toohey MD

    Wow. I could not agree more. At a certain point, we physicians and scientists need to bring our message directly to the people that count- all the mothers and fathers and families out there who get their information from the popular media, and then trust it because of its popularity. This is the natural human response. We need to accept this and ‘get out hands dirty’ by being willing to get down point by point and discuss these things on the web. Yes, some people use circular logic and are incapable of listening/ changing their minds but others are listening.

    I try to do this on my own site and on facebook, too. We don’t win this debate by standing above it and refusing to engage.

  • Anonymous

    Hello, we’re doctors, not politicians!
    The problem with being  a thought leader of the  masses (you know, the kind of folks you went to high school with) is that you have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to explain things to people who are not particularly smart and not particularly interested.  That way lies madness, or at least frustration.  And most of us get enough of that at work.   Better to smile, not politely, and back slowly away from the debate and leave it to people like, say, Ms. McCarthy.  Sure, the world might be a marginally better place if docs would intellectually engage with the rest of the species on topics about which we know something, but, frankly, who wants to put his or her head into that meat grinder.  Ever try to talk to an average American about evolution or global warming? I don’t advise it.
    Much easier to attempt to reason with people who are in fact good at reasoning.  Choose them wisely.

    • Anonymous


      There always has been, and always will be, an audience for hare-brained conspiracy theories.

      All the Tweets and Facebook postings in the world won’t change that.

    • Vytas Gaizutis

      And yet, I see examples of doctors who take the time and are having a profound effect.

      Dr. Robert Lustig is a great example. His brilliant 90 minute video on YouTube, “Sugar, The Bitter Truth”, has received more than 1.6 million views and raised awareness about the growing obesity epidemic. It continues to go viral:
      Another example is Dr. Steve Novella, a clinical neurologist whose Neurologica blog continues to inform on important matters of medical science and debunk quackery and pseudoscience: 

  • Craig Koniver

    There are some great points here. Doctors, in general, are afraid of embracing anything beyond “evidence based medicine” and that is a shame. People like Jenny McCarthy have found a voice because they are addressing issues most doctors do NOT want to address. But of course we should be. Change rarely comes from the inside, but is sparked by thoughts outside the circle of thought–same is true here. People are inspired based upon emotion but they want to back that up with reason as well. Since very few doctors are even willing to have an open discussion about Autism, then of course, voices that speak against this will get heard. And I think this is good–the more open, honest discussion we have about the effects of our environment, our food choices, chemicals, hormones, etc. that are all over our environment, the closer we will get to learning that life cannot be lived inside a box. I enjoy discussing these topics with my patients because they are real and they matter very much.

  • Iot Suppl

    “Jenny McCarthy’s strength is that she doesn’t just join in the conversation — she assaults it.”
    I disagree….I think her strength is a sweet rack

  • Russ P


    Sir, you may love “social media,” but if you think the sane are just going to let fools like Ms. Playboy kill us with her ignorance on “Oprah,” you have lost your mind.

    Will fight these fools, to our last breath. With or without Web sites.

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