Oprah should seize opportunity to champion health literacy

Is America suffering from "Oprah fatigue?" Ratings are down as is readership in her magazine, O.

Is America suffering from “Oprah fatigue?” Ratings are down as is readership in her magazine, O.

Or, is it something else? Newsweek's June 8 cover story, "Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures & You," shows us some cracks in her pedestal -- a danger to her reputation and to the public health in her embrace of alternative therapies.

Oprah defended her show in response to the condemnation of mainstream medicine. She said they presented thousands of topics that included “doctors' advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations… I trust viewers, and know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best…"

Let's break this down. First, doctors' advice. Unfortunately, some physicians and their advice are more equal than others. There is a cadre of highly credentialed individuals who have repudiated peer-reviewed data in favor of so-called natural remedies. Dr. RW Donnell, the physician blogger, calls them “quackademics.” The article highlighted Christaine Northrup, M.D., who uses Tarot cards to diagnose illness. She said that "in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of 'swallowing' words one is aching to say." Oprah called Northrup's book, The Wisdom of Menopause, her "Bible.”

Second, personal health stories. We know that information conveyed in a personal way connects with audiences better than just some dry facts. The flip side is that the information is more often wishful thinking than it is fact. Suzanne Somers, for example, speaks to Oprah's audience of her own quest to double her lifespan with a regimen of non-FDA approved bioidentical hormones and 60 other supplements, which she ingests, applies, and injects. "I have spent thousands of hours on this. I've written 18 books. I know my stuff," she told Newsweek. Oprah said, "every woman should read" Somers' books.

Finally, trusting viewers. Here, the word "trust" is just not applicable. The issue is whether or not viewers are exposed to other sources of information, and are able to differentiate real science from junk science. There are plenty of intelligent Americans, but the vast majority have low health literacy. In a survey of more than 19,000 adults (age 16 and up) conducted a few years ago by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 11% where found to be "proficient" in their health literacy.

Rather than defend the past and continue on this course, Oprah should seize the opportunity to do better in the future. Please Oprah, ensure that all sides of the medical argument are heard. Leverage your reach and good intentions by being a champion of health and science literacy.

Paul Oestreicher, Ph.D., is president of Oestreicher Communications, LLC and is an adjunct professor at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Division of Programs in Business.

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