Viewpoint: Why patients turn to celebrities for health advice

Many patients turn to celebrities for health advice because their fame provides them with an accessible platform — a platform many physicians and scientists may never have, argues Nina Shapiro, MD, director of pediatric otolaryngology and professor of head and neck surgery at Los Angeles-based UCLA Health, in a STAT op-ed.

"We look to CPAs to complete our tax returns, lawyers to handle our disputes, plumbers to fix our pipes," Dr. Shapiro wrote. "So it baffles me that an astounding number of us turn to movie stars and other celebrities for health advice."

Here are five takeaways from the article.

1. Dr. Shapiro cited a recent article in Parents magazine, where 13 actresses offered their opinions and advice on vaccines, including their safety, effectiveness and timing. "They are celebrity actresses, with their own incredible talents, smarts, and savvy," Dr. Shapiro wrote. "But they aren't doctors, nurses, or scientists with expertise in immunology or public health."

2. Although these celebrities aren't health experts, they have a platform, which is something most physicians and scientists do not have and not many will ever possess, Dr. Shapiro added. "People listen to performers with platforms."

3. A number of physicians criticized the Parents article, saying the medical community would not acknowledge a non-medical professional's opinions on vaccines. "It's enough of challenge for physicians to explain the safety and effectiveness of vaccines to patients and families, let alone having to answer the claims of movie stars," Dr. Shapiro wrote.

4. Despite physician criticism, a number of patients still follow celebrity health advice, which could lead to more skepticism on vaccines and dangerous side effects of unscientific health products. "When celebrities give vaccines mediocre ratings, their voices are heard," Dr. Shapiro wrote. "That gives power to the growing number of skeptics on vaccine safety and efficacy — even against the flu shot."

5. Although patients may continue to see celebrities as health gurus, Dr. Shapiro notes, a number of famous scientists, including Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, can use their celebrity platform to spread well-researched information through books, television and live events.

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