The Dangers Of Being A Doctor To The Stars

The death of Michael Jackson has shined a spotlight on celebrity doctors as his personal doctor, Conrad Murray, has become the focus of a manslaughter investigation. Host Scott Simon speaks to University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer about the complications and consequences of being a doctor to the stars.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The death of Michael Jackson has shined a spotlight on celebrity doctors. Authorities say they believe that Mr. Jackson was an addict. And they're investigating whether his death in his home last month was related to Propofol, a powerful anesthetic that's administered in hospitals during surgery.

His personal doctor, Conrad Murray, has become the focus of a manslaughter investigation. Dr. Murray isn't the only celebrity doctor who could be facing prison time. Los Angeles prosecutors have charged two doctors with over-prescribing drugs to Anna Nicole Smith, who died of an overdose in 2007.

Sociologist Karen Sternheimer, of the University of Southern California, joins us now from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor KAREN STERNHEIMER (University of Southern California): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And we should make it plain: celebrity doctors aren't Sanjay Gupta. Celebrity doctors are people who treat celebrities, right?

Prof. STERNHEIMER: Right. Right. And of course they come in all shapes and sizes. So we don't want to broad brush them with the unfortunate outcomes of Michael Jackson and some of the other celebrities you mentioned. But...

SIMON: But does it happen that celebrities, who after all travel a lot and find it awkward to sit in a waiting room, seek out a personal physician who will do pretty much what they want?

Prof. STERNHEIMER: Yeah, it is often the case that people who are use to having others kind of circle around them and meet their needs first, would certainly expect this with their health care as well. And as we can see, this can lead to some problems with the doctor/patient relationship.

SIMON: Hmm. Well, when you talk about reversing the doctor/patient relationship, explain that. You mean doctors who are just a little too compliant because someone famous is asking them?

Prof. STERNHEIMER: Yeah. Well, most of us, we go to where the doctor is, we see them on their schedule, we often wait beyond when they say that they're going to see us. And they often maintain, you know, a whole lot more control and power over the circumstances and the situation. They're leading, they're telling us what to do. I mean, they ask us to do things we certainly wouldn't do in any other context probably.

But that's very different for people who are used to having others cater to their needs. And as we have seen, the allegations with Michael Jackson's doctor, it could actually be dangerous in some situations.

SIMON: Does the sociology then - and you're a sociologist - follow that the doctor can say to him or herself, well, if I don't give it to them, they'll get it from someone else, and at least I care for them?

Ms. STERNHEIMER: Exactly. And I think for a lot of people without, you know, trying to read the minds of people who do this, I think that there is this really intoxicating effect of being around somebody who is especially as famous as Michael Jackson was, that it becomes really difficult to possibly risk severing that relationship.

I mean, for most of us, if the doctor is unhappy with us and they lose us as a patient, it's not a big deal. They will lose our subsidized - if we have health insurance - what little the insurance company will reimburse them for. But if you're being paid $150,000 a month, as Dr. Murray allegedly was, it's probably harder to lose that patient than just a regular patient.

SIMON: And do celebrities make it worth their while?

Ms. STERNHEIMER: Unfortunately, I think that's where some of the ethical dilemmas enter in, is that for some doctors it's really hard to resist not only the money, but also being part of this inner circle of a celebrity.

SIMON: Yeah. So it's as seductive for a doctor as it can be for someone who wants to be a gopher for Elvis Presley?

Ms. STERNHEIMER: Exactly. And even for a doctor becoming a so-called doctor to the stars carries with it a cache that they might be able to kind of build their business from that as well. Those that have the reputation, especially in Los Angeles, for being doctors to the stars or being the dermatologist to the stars or plastic surgeon to the stars, maybe also will command higher fees and also it carries a cache that would appeal to non-celebrities too.

SIMON: I'm wondering, when we talk about the two doctors who are facing charges in the death of Anna Nicole Smith, does the fact that criminal charges have resulted, not just oversight from the profession, does that change the equation?

Ms. STERNHEIMER: I think that's the intention anyway, for doctors who might be involved in this kind of practice, and there certainly are a lot, I would think, especially those who really cater to celebrity clientele, to really think twice about is this person your patient or is this person your client. And it's often, I think, very difficult to say no to somebody who your business is really dependent on.

So hopefully these criminal charges might make people think twice about that Hippocratic Oath and whether they're really doing the best for their patient.

SIMON: Karen Sternheimer, sociologist at the University of Southern California, and the author of two books on celebrity culture, thanks very much.

Ms. STERNHEIMER: Thank you.

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