Hillary Clinton and the Trouble With Media Medical Experts

Who is "faking it"?

After Hillary Clinton was hospitalized over the weekend due to a blood clot near her brain, following her concussion last month, the Daily Beast ran an article by a doctor and frequent site contributor seeking to explain what was going on with the Secretary of State, and to gauge the seriousness of Clinton’s illness.

Early in the article the doctor, Kent Sepkowitz, a New York-based infectious disease specialist, raised the borderline-libelous assertion, pushed by the likes of Ann Coulter and the odious former Bush official John Bolton, that Clinton has faked the illness to avoid testifying about the Benghazi affair.

Then he described the circumstances of the hospitalization as “fishy,” citing the National Enquirer and other sources before ultimately giving the Secretary the benefit of the doubt that she really does have a dangerous blood clot near her brain. Nice of him to do that. It isn’t until the article’s last two paragraphs that Sepkowitz concludes that Clinton’s prognosis is good.

Even without the entirely evidence-free speculation that the Secretary of State of the United States may have lied about a potentially major illness, Sepkowitz’s piece is part of a media trend that I find highly problematic: a doctor or other medical expert taking to a media outlet to offer a diagnosis or other analysis of a person who is not their patient, and whom they have never examined or likely even met.

In the case of Clinton, a whole bunch of media outlets did this, with Fox and CNN both putting experts on the air. I’m sure these people are all fine physicians, and I’m not meaning in any way to impugn their medical ethics.

But I find it sort of unseemly, not to mention irresponsible, when a doctor or other medical expert is asked by a media organization to provide a specific diagnosis about a specific public figure’s specific medical situation, when this person isn’t the doctor’s patient, and the doctor has never examined or treated them.

It’s both unfair to the person being discussed—who should enjoy some measure of a right to medical privacy—as well as the audience, which is getting incomplete information. Sepkowitz appears to have this as his beat; he’s recently written similarly speculative articles for the Beast about Kate Middleton and Hugo Chavez, neither of whom, presumably, has ever been his patient.

We see this sort of thing all the time in sports media, especially locally, with the sports radio stations and Comcast Sports Net regularly calling in doctors from Novacare and elsewhere to provide their best analysis of what’s really going on with player injuries. The saga last year of Chase Utley’s knee surgery, to name one example, was confusing enough as it was without medical pundits chiming in regularly.

This phenomenon also creeped up frequently during the last couple of years of Steve Jobs’ life, with medical experts going on CNBC to assess how gaunt the Apple CEO looked during various public appearances, and sometimes speculating based on a video clip whether or not he still had cancer. This was done with the implication that viewers would make investment decisions based on the analysis.

Meanwhile, the tendency of people on gossip shows and magazines to make non-expert, non-medical assessments about whether or not certain female celebrities are pregnant, or possibly afflicted with an eating disorder, is a whole other problem.

We even saw this after the Sandy Hook shooting, when all sorts of TV news shows brought on doctors to make heads or tails of shooter Adam Lanza’s exact mental status, when clearly none of those people had examined Lanza or were in any position to make any statement or diagnosis about what may have driven Lanza to commit the terrible act.

Everybody’s health is different, and that’s why we should only trust someone’s medical opinion about a specific case when they have actually examined the person in question. If I needed medical treatment, I would want the doctor to actually examine me, rather than base their assessment on what they heard about my condition on TV or in a newspaper.