When I was in Los Angeles recently, there was a headline article in the Health Section of the June 14 Los Angeles Times entitled “The Cult of Celebrity Doctors.” No surprise there, I guess, given the prominence of the celebrity culture in Los Angeles. However, perhaps the medical backgrounds of these celebrity doctors may be surprising, and suggest something important about the role of psychiatrists in our modern society.
Of the 7 “doctors” highlighted, 4 are surgeons. You may know them. They are: Drs Mehmet Oz, Nancy Snyderman, Atul Gawanda, and Sanjay Gupta. There was also one anesthesiologist, Dr Michael F. Roizen; one alternative medicine physician, Dr Andrew Weil, and one psychologist, Dr Phil McGraw. None were psychiatrists, although the chief commentator in the article was indeed a psychiatrist. There also were not any pediatricians or family physicians. What may this breakdown mean, at least as far as psychiatrists are concerned?
It is probably self-evident that to be a celebrity doctor requires at the minimum certain characteristics. The doctor needs to be comfortable being an authority figure and, at the same time, convey humanistic concerns. Being telegenic helps if you are on television a lot.
Certainly, surgeons, of all medical specialties, have been known to be most comfortable with authority, but in general less renowned for their interpersonal and humanistic skills. Are these particular celebrity surgeons unique, or are they more representative of some change in the culture and values of surgeons? On the other hand, as psychiatrists have become more biologically oriented, there is some evidence that we have become less humanistic.
The psychiatrist commentator, Dr Tom Linden, sans photo, was quoted as saying that such celebrity doctors succeed in part because “we project onto these celebrities traits, wisdom and other abilities that they may or may not have.” That sounds to me a lot like the transference reactions we may expect and receive in a psychotherapy relationship. If so, one might think that psychiatrists would be a natural for being celebrities. However, we may also realize that there is no opportunity to work through such distortions and that the necessary sound bites may seem too simplistic. Pop psychology, if you will. Phil McGraw, better known as “Dr Phil,” is known for such philosophical sound bites as “You’re only lonely if you’re not there for you.” Perhaps psychiatrists are also reluctant (assuming one of us would be asked) due to confidentiality concerns, intensified for us due to privacy needs and stigma.
A couple of days after this article, a possible example of the ambivalence about a psychiatrist celebrity emerged, also from Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Lakers won the national men’s professional basketball championship. Ron Artest, who previously achieved notoriety for his temper, made a surprise clutch contribution. Once, he was suspended for a season for going into the stands to attack a fan. Now, in a press conference, he thanked his psychiatrist for enabling him to relax. But who this psychiatrist is has apparently not been made public, nor what he did for Mr Artest. Wouldn’t a significant portion of our population want to know how to achieve this transformation?
The example of Mr Artest suggests to me what a loss this may be for society and psychiatry. Sure, we have had the drama of Dr Gupta performing minor surgery on a baby in Haiti after the earthquake, but what if a celebrity psychiatrist could depict the reframing of the psychological trauma for a child? Dr Oz is an advisor and spokesman for RealAge.com, but what about a psychiatrist doing something similar for an imaginary new site, RealMind.com? What if a celebrity psychiatrist could advise the nation about getting mental health checkups? Controversy about DSM-5 is a natural for brief sound bites about new diagnoses. How about the pros and cons about psychoactive medication for self-improvement? Anyone for a psychiatrist as the next U.S. Surgeon General? As far as I can tell, there has never been one. Or, are we better off behind the scenes?