Medical students and residents frustrated with bogus advice from doctors on TV have, for more than a year, been asking the American Medical Association to clamp down and "defend the integrity of the profession."
Now the AMA is finally taking a stand on quack MDs who spread pseudoscience in the media.
"This is a turning point where the AMA is willing to go out in public and actively defend the profession," Benjamin Mazer, a medical student at the University of Rochester who was involved in crafting the resolution, said. "This is one of the most proactive steps that the AMA has taken [on mass media issues]."
The AMA will look at creating ethical guidelines for physicians in the media, write a report on how doctors may be disciplined for violating medical ethics through their press involvement, and release a public statement denouncing the dissemination of dubious medical information through the radio, TV, newspapers, or websites.
The move came out of the AMA's annual meeting in Chicago this week, where representatives from across the country vote on policies brought forward by members of the medical community.
Mazer and fellow medical students and residents were prompted to push the AMA after noticing that the organization was mostly silent during the recent public debates about the ethics of Dr. Oz sharing unfounded medical advice on his exceptionally popular TV show.
"Dr. Oz has something like 4 million viewers a day," Mazer previously told Vox in an interview. "The average physician doesn't see a million patients in their lifetime. That's why organized medicine should be taking action."
Pressure to address media doctors had been building
These issues have been in the spotlight for more than a year.
- Last summer, Oz was called before a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, where the senator in charge, Claire McCaskill (D-MO), asked him to explain his use of "flowery" language to champion weight loss fixes that don't actually work and then admonished him for endorsing a rainbow of supplements as potential "belly blasters"and "mega metabolism boosters." As McCaskill put it, "The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called 'miracles.'"
- In December, a British Medical Journal study examined the health claims showcased on 40 randomly selected episodes of the two most popular internationally syndicated health talk shows — The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors — and found that about half of the recommendations either had no evidence behind them or actually contradicted the best available science.
- In January, investigations into The Dr. Oz Show by the Federal Trade Commission showed that at least one of Oz's miracle-touting guests used the program as a platform to deceive audiences and sell products.
- In April, a high-profile group of physicians and academics questioned Oz's faculty position at Columbia University and wrote in a letter to the medical school dean: "Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both."
- The same month, Oz responded to his critics by accusing them of having conflicts of interest and defending his civil liberties. "I know I have irritated some potential allies," he wrote in Time magazine. "No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. We will not be silenced."
The American Medical Association can't actually enforce anything
While the AMA is the steward of the medical profession in the US, it's not a regulatory or licensing body. That power lies with individual states. So the new AMA policy, more than anything, will be a sign that the organization is taking ethical issues surrounding doctors' media work more seriously.
The organization has existing ethical guidelines — which doctors in the country are obliged to follow — but up until now, they didn't include specific guidance for physicians who discuss medical information in mass media. So, following this new resolution, the AMA will compile a report examining the ethical issues doctors in the media face and potentially create a policy to guide them.
The AMA will also compile a guideline to explain the disciplinary pathways that people can use if they see a doctor promoting something that seems dubious on air or in the press. "This could include legal proceedings, or state medical boards that control a doctor's license," explained Mazer.
Finally, the AMA will issue a public statement reiterating the profession's values and affirming doctors' professional obligation to be evidence-based, especially when speaking publicly.
Mazer is hopeful that the AMA's decision to address the question of ethics among media doctors represents a big step.
"With the actions taken at this last meeting, the AMA is now willing to lead when it comes to crafting a profession that uses technology to promote public health while still maintaining rigorous ethics," he wrote on his blog. "I couldn't be more proud of my colleagues."