Complementary remedies for the flu: How Good Morning America failed

Talk of the widespread and dangerous flu circulating this year has the public on edge and hungry for quality information about how to protect themselves.

ABC’s Good Morning America isn’t helping with this segment featuring chief medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton, MD, titled “3 complementary natural remedies for the flu.”

It’s a mess of conflicting messages about herbal approaches to managing flu symptoms. And it positions Ashton — an ABC physician-journalist who’s brought in to report the story — as the only expert perspective about the effectiveness of these products.

Where were the independent sources?

Is Ashton — an OB/GYN — uniquely qualified to assess the anti-viral activity of oregano oil, olive leaf, and elderberry?

If not, then why is she the only one offering an opinion about whether or not these products are effective?

A sampling of Ashton’s head-spinning statements about these products make it clear why another voice was necessary.

The segment starts out with Ashton issuing some common sense-sounding disclaimers:

  • “There’s not yet peer-review, evidence-based medicine that supports the use of alternative or complementary therapies in the battle against the flu.”
  • “… especially with children and pregnant women and children, this is not recommended without the consult and advice of your health care provider.”

But then she quickly pivots to discussing oregano oil’s “antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties” and instructing viewers how to take it.

  • “use a couple of drops in water, put it on a spoon, put it under your tongue, swish and then swallow.”

This despite the fact that “we’re not sure, obviously, yet, good data on toxicity.”

Obviously?

I’m not sure that GMA viewers are up to speed on the latest toxicity data for oregano oil.

And if there’s no good toxicity data, and no good evidence that this product works, should you really be instructing viewers about how to dose themselves with it on national TV?

More contradiction and confusion

I cringe when I think of viewers trying to make sense of these jumbled statements.

  • “This has been studied, really, pretty aggressively, and there is some promising work done in the lab.”
  • “There is rigorous science behind these, not yet peer reviewed, evidence-based, but I find it very interesting.”

Studied “pretty aggressively”? With “rigorous science”? But “not yet peer-reviewed” or “evidence-based”?

Got it.

The text version of the story cites “small lab studies” supporting oregano oil and says that olive leaf capsules were described in a study “as having antiviral properties to the respiratory viruses RSV and parainfluenza, although it has not yet been proven to be effective against influenza.”

Maybe the studies on these products have been done “rigorously” as Ashton states. But if they haven’t been performed in humans and haven’t targeted the flu virus, it’s hard to see why they’re worth discussing in a national TV news segment.

The ethical dilemma of TV physician-journalists

Ashton’s closing recommendation about these products is problematic on at least two levels.

  • “I would recommend these in addition to conventional treatments, not in lieu of — that is not recommended.”

First, why would anyone — but especially a physician — “recommend” products that don’t, in Ashton’s words, have “peer-reviewed, evidence-based” support showing that they work and whose potential toxicities are unclear?

Second, why is Ashton making her own health care recommendations to the GMA audience to the exclusion of all others? Her title at the network is “chief medical correspondent” — not “personal medical adviser to all ABC viewers.” Her job is to report on the evidence and deliver the expert opinion of others — not to deliver her own opinions, especially when they’re as muddled as Ashton’s seem to be on this topic.

Some readers may not perceive the problem here, but it’s a significant ethical concern for journalists.

When a journalist starts recommending health care interventions it crosses the line from journalism into advocacy. And that’s something that the Association of Health Care Journalists expressly warns against in its Statement of Principles, which say that journalists should:

“Distinguish between advocacy and reporting. There are many sides in a health care story. It is not the job of the journalist to take sides, but to present an accurate, balanced and complete report.”

We’ve written extensively about Ashton’s ethical challenges on this front and the thorny problems that they can lead to. But she’s hardly the only network news correspondent who tries (and fails) to wear two hats at the same time. We’ve criticized Natalie Azar, MD at NBC as well as her predecessor Nancy Snyderman, MD. Our tag for TV physician-journalists contains at least a dozen other examples of how this situation leads to conflicts of interest and poor-quality health care news.

What’s really needed — and what our publisher, Gary Schwitzer, has repeatedly called for — is someone to give these TV physicians training in what it means to be a journalist.

That doesn’t seem to be happening, so we’ll continue to point out how these arrangements don’t serve the best interests of viewers.

Kevin Lomangino is managing editor, HealthNewsReview.org, where this article originally appeared. He can be reached on Twitter @KLomangino.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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