Why do patients turn to celebrities for health advice?

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Americans believe in experts. We look to CPAs to complete our tax returns, lawyers to handle our disputes, plumbers to fix our pipes. So it baffles me that an astounding number of us turn to movie stars and other celebrities for health advice.

Take a recent article in Parents magazine: “Where 13 Celebrity Parents Stand on Vaccinating Their Kids.” In it, 13 successful actresses, including Alicia Silverstone, Julie Bowen, and Amanda Peet offered their opinions and advice on issues such as the safety, effectiveness, and timing of vaccines. They also shared their thoughts on vaccinating — or not vaccinating — their children.

Why do their opinions matter? They are celebrity actresses, with their own incredible talents, smarts, and savvy. But they aren’t doctors, nurses, or scientists with expertise in immunology or public health.

What they do have is a platform, something most doctors and scientists don’t have, and few will ever possess. People listen to performers with platforms.

When people hear a famous person’s personal views on family health decisions, they fall prey to the illusion that they have set foot beyond the boundary of that star’s coveted personal space. Although we may not carry cameras, we non-celebrities are paparazzi with different lenses, peering with interest into the personal habits of the rich and famous.

The vaccine article struck serious chords in the medical community, and doctors took some sharp jabs at the piece. Many physicians chimed in that the medical community couldn’t care less about a non-medical person’s views on one of the most remarkable worldwide public health successes in history. It’s enough of challenge for physicians to explain the safety and effectiveness of vaccines to patients and families, let alone having to answer the claims of movie stars. Others expressed dismay that a mainstream parenting magazine provided yet another stage to some of the most powerful anti-vaccination voices, one of whom has lately played a key role in the anti-vaccination movement.

But the magazine ended up making some changes to the article, trimming two celebrities off the list, and adding an introduction about how the magazine supports vaccines and how they find it “irksome” that some celebrities feel otherwise. Included in that group was Jenny McCarthy, perhaps the loudest voice that helped the anti-vaccination movement get to where it is today. Irksome, indeed.

It’s enough of challenge for physicians to explain the safety and effectiveness of vaccines to patients and families, let alone having to answer the claims of movie stars.

Illnesses such as whooping cough, measles, and mumps — once common and potentially deadly — were made uncommon by vaccinations. Today, though, outbreaks continue to occur in pockets of the U.S., commonly in wealthy regions where the privileged set choose not to vaccinate their children or to delay their vaccinations. Such decisions can be deadly. During this flu season, one of the worst in decades, thousands of previously healthy children and adults have died of the flu, most of whom were not vaccinated against it. At its peak in early February, the flu was responsible for 1 of every ten deaths and on a killing spree to the tune of 4,000 Americans a week.

When celebrities give vaccines mediocre ratings, their voices are heard. That gives power to the growing number of skeptics on vaccine safety and efficacy — even against the flu shot.

The celebrity effect isn’t limited to vaccines. Celebrities write books on health and wellness, childrearing, diet and nutrition, pregnancy, mental health, and more. They roll out health product lines, organize and run health conferences, and sell ideas that are such utter nonsense it should make any reasonable person’s head spin. Most of these ideas are backed by shoddy science, or no evidence at all. Gwyneth Paltrow touts coffee enemas to “detox” the body and jade eggs inserted into a woman’s nether regions to improve colonic and sexual health. Silverstone claimed that chewing and regurgitating food was the best way to feed one’s offspring. These absurdities are elevated by each star’s platform.

True advancements such as the human genome project, precision imaging technology, targeted chemotherapy and radiation, and gene therapy are just a handful of the remarkable game changers in health care. Widespread immunization is another.

It’s a shame that the noise reverberating from celebrity platforms often distorts or drowns out dry but solid data. Thankfully, those without IMDb pages are now spreading the gospel of data, with books, television, and popular live events. Bill Nye was a nerdy high school kid, cum nerdy children’s science show guy. Now, look at him. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a veritable rock star.

Fortunately, the editors at Parents magazine listened and responded when called to task about touting the medical views of celebrities. I’d like to believe this signals that we are headed toward a time when scientists will again be the voice of science, and celebrities will again be the voice of celebrity, but I’m not holding my breath.

Nina Shapiro is a pediatric otolaryngologist.  She is the author of Take a Deep Breath: Clear the Air for the Health of Your Child, can be reached on her self-titled site, Dr. Nina Shapiro, and can be reached on Twitter @drninashapiro. This article originally appeared in STAT News.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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