TV personality Dr. Phil McGraw made headlines recently as one of our own, living with type 2 diabetes -- actually for a quarter-century now.
What made headlines, of course, was his new role as a spokesman for pharma company AstraZeneca. Dr. Phil is the famous psychologist who's been a celeb TV personality for more than a decade, after first appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show back in the 90s. He was diagnosed with diabetes over 25 years ago and has apparently tried a variety of treatments, but since 2012 has been on a treatment plan that includes the AZ-manufactured injectable GLP-1 drug Bydureon.
In a multi-media news release distributed last week, AstraZeneca shared that Dr. Phil is one of two people taking up the spotlight to plug their diabetes meds -- the other is Dr. Pamela Kushner, a family physician in Irvine, California. Both are now paid spokespeople who will pitch their new awareness program called the ON IT Movement, aimed at empowering people with type 2 to live healthier. There's even an #OnItMovement hashtag on Twitter.
This obviously brings up the whole controversy about celebrity spokes-folks, a la the Paula Deen debacle a few years ago. Dr. Phil may not be a medical doctor, but he's also not known for pushing unhealthy butter and carb-laden cooking. So there's that.
We looked into what he's actually saying about diabetes and reactions from our peers in the patient community.
Dr. Phil's Diabetes Message
Dr. Phil will reportedly be pushing a 6 rules program, that includes:
- Move forward. Tackle your type 2 diabetes head on – no more guilt, no more feeling overwhelmed.
- Get educated. Understand more about type 2 diabetes so you’ll be armed with the know-how to fight back more effectively.
- Build a team. Pull together a team – your doctor, your spouse, your kids, a trainer at a gym or your buddies at work – and lead it.
- Replace bad habits. Think about which aspects of your lifestyle need to change, and one by one, replace the bad habits with good habits.
- Make a plan. Have goals and create a plan to get you to those goals.
- Stick to it. Join the ON IT Movement to learn more about tools that can help you stick to your plan – whether it’s finding healthy recipes, getting ideas for exercising or learning how to change your everyday habits.
We do appreciate that AstraZeneca is highlighting the psychosocial aspect in this campaign, raising awareness about that side of living with diabetes. Kudos to the company for that.
Still, this makes our eyes roll, because honestly we just can't get past how much this feels like a snake oil salesman pitch for "6 Steps to Cure Diabetes!" Of course, we know it's not quite that cheesy... but c'mon AstraZeneca, anyone in the D-Community could have red-flagged you and Dr. Phil on what a poor a choice of mottos the "6 rules" would be.
We're not alone in rolling our eyes here, even though Dr. Phil is part of our pancreatically-challenged club. Many are not fans of this move by AstraZeneca to pay Dr. Phil big bucks to endorse them. When queried, some of our peers offered clipped replies, such as: "utterly ridiculous," "disappointing," "irresponsible," and even some who simply responded with "No, no, no!"
The Diabetes Community Says...
Here's a sampling of some of the other community responses we've heard:
Corinna Cornejo, type 2 advocate and blogger at Spinning Dinner Plates
"Using a talk show doctor as a spokesperson for a prescription medicine just causes confusion. Here you have someone who is not a credentialed medical doctor speaking as a patient but being referred to as 'doctor.' Ultimately, this just gets in the way of understanding what the medication is and what it can and cannot do.
"From a marketing standpoint, when the spokesperson draws more attention than the thing they are promoting, that's a problem. I'm old enough to remember the controversy that happened when Robert Young did a medicine commercial and people confused him with (his role as) Dr. Marcus Welby, MD. He had to redo the commercial saying, 'I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV.' That phrase has become a not-so-complementary Internet meme and phrase in pop culture.
"Just recently, there was another talk show doctor controversy. Cheryl Tiegs criticized Sports Illustrated for using a plus-sized model in their swimsuit issue. She said that a woman's waist should be a certain size and said Dr. Oz was her source for that 'fact.' There's been some blowback in social media about the credibility of that source, including on The Daily Show."
Bea Sparks, D-peep and advocate who blogs at The Type 2 Experience
"To be honest, I know who Dr. Phil is, but I have never followed what he does closely. To me, he is another health professional who decided he wanted the big bucks, and now has thousands of followers that like to be indoctrinated by him about emotional issues. But that is just what I think. Now, do I really have an idea of what kind feedback he can provide? No. I also do not know anything about his own personal experience living with T2 diabetes for over 25 years, as it has been claimed.
"Initially, I did not want to be associated with this issue, but then my husband helped me put things in perspective: just listen! I do not have to agree with anything, but how can I make an informed decision about providing support or not if I don't know all the facts?
"So I did agree to attend the media conference call I was invited to just for the fact that they were gracious enough to provide us with a space for discussion. The least we can do is provide some feedback regarding their projects.
"I still think TV celebrities are disconnected from the reality of millions of people, especially those who live with a chronic disease. I believe their experience will never relate to ours. But we have to call things by their name... AZ is a pharma company, and they need to sell. That is why they bring the shiny guys in. I just hope this will be positive for the patient community."
Bob Pederson, T2 advocate:
"I can't speak to whether Dr. Phil is a saint or a huckster, but it's my sense that a lot of the people in my world would vote 'huckster.' For that reason, it bothers me to cast him in association with our disease. I haven't seen the ads, though. Maybe they'll be great."
On Facebook, a smattering of responses:
"He has been taking their medication for 4 years which makes him qualified to give his opinion of it. He wouldn't be qualified to give an Rx for it, but that's not what a spokesperson does."
"We have always known he is not a medical doctor (he was found in Texas by Oprah) and because of her, he is now famous and wealthy. If you want to purchase medication based on his history, go for it. As for myself, don't think so."
"Companies use famous people to hawk their merchandise, bring awareness to products and so on. I just hope he has or will research it before pitching the drug and the company."
"It's a professional conflict of interest. Kinda like a senator that spearheads a state building project who also owns the construction company that 'happens' to get the lowest bid."
"Yes, he's a patient, but it's part of being a recognizable celebrity... it's why he was selected. The fact that millions of Americans think he IS a medical doctor is what is so disturbing to me."
"We have TV personalities posing as doctors and maybe the next president. Is there no respect for actual professionals anymore?"
"I didn't know he was type 2... If he actually uses the drug I would say yes. But if he doesn't how can he be a spokesperson for it?"
"A Quack. He's just a pain to listen to, so I don’t."
"I wouldn't buy anything he's peddling. He's in the same category as Dr. Oz."
"I'd be sure and not take it!! He is a fraud."
"More harm than good."
We also reached out to AstraZeneca for their response to the controversy, and this is what their spokesperson offered as a statement (reprinted in full):
"We are proud of our partnership with Dr. Phil McGraw given his unique personal perspective living with type 2 diabetes for more than 25 years and his ability to help motivate others. We have engaged Dr. Phil to help inspire people with type 2 diabetes to pursue the optimal management of their disease. Along the way, we will be helping to raise awareness to the public about this often misunderstood condition.
"AstraZeneca has not engaged Dr. Phil in any medical capacity. Dr. Phil has been using Bydureon (exenatide extended-release) as part of his treatment plan since 2012. He is the host and producer of a top-rated show as well as a best-selling author. He has used these platforms to motivate, engage and inspire the general public by addressing important personal and social issues, including type 2 diabetes. He will encourage people to work with their healthcare providers and will not provide guidance around medications.
"Given his personal connection to the management of type 2 diabetes, his large reach across the country, and the ability to raise awareness of issues, Dr. Phil is ideally suited to speak about living with type 2 diabetes and he is well-matched with our campaign.
"By raising awareness through Dr. Phil’s personal experience with type 2 diabetes, we believe people will be more likely to take action, seek help and stick to a treatment plan in partnership with their healthcare provider.
"Public awareness and education programs that focus on personal experiences of well-known spokespersons help drive a more effective and actionable dialogue around chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes. For these reasons, among others, we believe our partnership with Dr. Phil strengthens our ability to deliver on our commitment to share important information about issues and needs with patients and their healthcare providers.
"We are committed to providing accurate, balanced, and appropriate information about our medicines and the conditions they treat and, to ensure we strike an appropriate balance. Given that Dr. Phil is speaking from his personal experience and not in any medical capacity, we are teaming Dr. Phil with Dr. Pamela Kushner, a board-certified family physician with a specialty in diabetes management. Dr. Kushner is able to provide medical information on type 2 diabetes and its treatment options, and explain the importance of lifestyle modifications from a clinical perspective."
Our Takeaway: Who's Your "Doctor"?
Last Fall, we attended an AstraZeneca-hosted forum with a couple dozen diabetes advocates. We enjoyed the event and the discussions, and had high hopes for what might come from that experience.
We asked AstraZeneca if this campaign came as a result of that forum, and we're told the two weren't directly related but the event did "influence thinking" to develop this campaign with Dr. Phil.
"When we heard people from the diabetes online community talk about the challenges they and others face – especially the overwhelming lack of education and empathy associated with type 2 diabetes – it reaffirmed to us that this is a critical unmet need," an AZ spokesperson said. "We needed to find a way to address these challenges as part of our campaign. At the summit, we also heard a few people say that 'real patients' weren’t being seen and heard enough in corporate campaigns, which reinforced our intent to ensure patient voices were being heard loud and clear. That includes Dr. Phil, who has had type 2 diabetes for 25 years."
Honestly, we think this is a tricky one. While Dr. Phil surely does have the capability to reach and probably motivate a large number of people, his title as "Dr" is certainly confusing, if not deliberately misleading.
And if the idea was to have Dr. Phil share his personal experiences to make struggles with diabetes relatable, then the videos AZ have created with him are off-target -- as they are full of blatant product promotion and a handful of FDA black box generated warnings about all the risks of using the AstraZeneca medication. In other words, they're more marketing stuff than a personal appeal.
And yes, that makes the skin crawl a bit on this end.
Still, like some of our D-peeps in the community pointed out above, now that the Dr. Phil campaign is in motion, we can only hope that it does more good than harm. We implore him to stick to sharing his own story and experiences, and leave the specific medication questions to the real MDs.
Maybe then, people can truly empower themselves and figure out what might work best for them, instead of being spoon-fed drug promotion via a celebrity infomercial.