How’s Donald Trump’s health? Back in December, the answer was “astonishingly excellent,” according to a four-paragraph letter from his doctor, Harold Bornstein.
Last month, the bizarre response got even less clear when Bornstein sheepishly admitted to writing the letter — addressed “To Whom My Concern” — in five minutes while a Trump limo waited outside his office.
That might have been the end of it, if not for Hillary Clinton’s “fainting episode” at the 9/11 memorial ceremony on Sunday, which fueled conspiracy theories alleging that she has epilepsy, Parkinson’s, MS, and who knows what else. At that point, Trump promised to release “very, very specific numbers” from a physical exam he had last week. Not only that, but he would be talking about them with Mehmet Oz — “America’s doctor,” as Oprah calls him — on his popular daytime show.
But then, Wednesday morning — the day the show was scheduled to tape — yet another turn: Although Trump would still appear on Thursday’s episode of The Dr. Oz Show, his aides told the New York Times that he had changed his mind about releasing the physical exam. And by afternoon, surprise again! The show sent a press release announcing that Trump had indeed shared with Dr. Oz the results of last week’s physical, performed by Bornstein.
In this campaign about trust, the public is clearly itching for more health information about the candidates — not least because Clinton is 68 and Trump 70, which would make him the oldest person to take the Oval Office. But, spoiler alert: The details of Trump’s physical aren’t going to be revelatory. Far more interesting is where he chose to reveal them.
The scientific community is some mix of amused and aghast at the pairing of Trump and Oz — just as it is about all things Oz and all things Trump. And sure, the parallels between the two showmen are easy to snicker at. Both owe their fame to cheesy television shows. Both Tweet their favorite recipes to millions of followers. Both are sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement. Both have peddled vitamins and supplements that don’t work (even leading, in Oz’s case, to a Congressional hearing on his role in perpetuating “scams”).
But Trump’s affinity with Oz taps into something more profound, too. Both have attracted a massive audience fed up with mainstream authorities — whether a stressed out doctor who sees them for all of five minutes and smugly dismisses their questions about Ginkgo biloba, or a career politician who just can’t manage to tell the whole truth about her work emails. Trump and Oz project an outsider, folksy, tell-it-like-it-is attitude that many people crave. Instead of dismissing it, mainstream scientists and doctors should perhaps take stock of their own failings in public communication.
“Both of them represent a post-rationality world, where facts don’t matter anymore because you can’t trust the source of those facts: You can’t trust science, you can’t trust big government,” says Timothy Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. “We need to learn from how this has happened.”
The public’s trust in science is more nuanced than you might think. Looked at one way, it’s high: Around 40-50% of Americans have reported “a great deal of confidence” in medicine and the scientific community since the 1970s, higher than its trust in banks, companies, unions, education, media, religion, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the president. We all love cell phones and microwaves, ride in airplanes, and take a whole lot of prescription drugs.
But that trust seems to break down in certain areas of science — and particularly those that Oz specializes in, like nutrition and wellness. Caulfield, who often writes about vaccines, organic food, and homeopathy, says he gets a lot of hate mail, and that the themes are incredibly consistent: “You, the scientific community, have lost my trust. You’re in bed with big pharma, you’re in bed with big agriculture — I can’t trust what you’re producing anymore.”
A similar contradiction pops up when you ask Americans about doctors. A 2014 survey of 29 countries found that the US ranks 3rd in patient satisfaction with our own medical care. But when asked about doctors in general being trustworthy, the US ranking is dismal — 24th.
Why the big distinction? “What that really relates to is how people see medical leadership in terms of public issues — the stands [doctors] take, their involvement with government, and what they say when they’re on television and TV,” says Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard who led the survey. When US doctors take public positions, he says, they tend to avoid the most pressing public health issues — and instead focus on what affects their livelihood, like Obamacare and insurance reimbursements.
Although Americans are generally happy with their medical care, Blendon agrees with Caulfield that they tend not to trust their doctor’s opinions about nutrition. His team’s surveys have found that an enormous number of Americans — nearly 40% — take supplements. But more than one-third of them don’t tell their doctor.
And that, from Blendon’s perspective, helps explains the rise of Oz. “There’s this range of things which deal with health and lifestyle and supplementation that is part of his show that you couldn’t get talked about in a physician’s office,” he says.
Alternative medicine and weird food cults have been around for decades, of course. But in the past, when the media was largely controlled by three television networks, “it was very established physicians who would do the medical shows,” Blendon says.
Today’s media landscape, in contrast, has plenty of room for charming new medical “experts.” It’s why Gwyneth Paltrow pushes vaginal steamings, bath detoxes, and $200 smoothies in her popular email newsletter, and the Kardashians Instagram all manner of Fit Teas, waist trainers, teeth whiteners, and morning sickness pills to their millions of followers. And why a supposed 4 million people tune in to The Dr. Oz Show every day. (Representatives of the show declined to give official numbers.)
That massive audience, with minds open to ideas outside of the mainstream, is almost certainly why Trump accepted the doctor’s invitation to come on the show. (Oz extended the same invitation to Clinton.)
There’s a chance that Oz will ask Trump about vaccines, the opioid epidemic, or any number of substantive health issues. But don’t count on it. And don’t hold your breath on learning more about the candidate’s personal health history, either. As Oz told The Today Show, “I’m not trying to pry, or probe, I’m just trying to hear what’s really going on in their lives.”
"The metaphor for me is it’s the doctor’s office, the studio,” Oz told Fox News’s Kilmeade. “So I’m not going to ask him questions he doesn’t want to have answered.”
It’s a genius move for Trump — cozying up to a warm and popular doctor in a week when his opponent, already considered untrustworthy, appears especially so.
And the ratings, no doubt, will be huge.
Virginia Hughes is a science editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Virginia Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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