Hollywood’s Top 5 Medical Falsehoods

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Since “fake news” seems to be the catch all buzz worthy expression of the moment, we also don’t need to look very far to find common medical falsehoods that tend to originate from the Hollywood stratosphere. Whether it is a press statement about a celebrity or a concept in a film, the nugget for fodder gets picked up by all media forms and insidiously spread.

Especially in the realm of celebrity—a category many politicians tend to fall into these days, there is what gets publicized and the truth. Being a physician who still believes in the right to privacy and is bound by certain codes of ethics and regulations, the standard for the release of health information is pretty clear and reflects the fact that the public is not entitled to know the details of another person’s health history unless said individual formally consents to such disclosure. 

In the Fall, debate over our recent presidential contenders’ medical status was in the spotlight. What the public had the right to know or not was hotly contested. As I stated then, a doctor can only reveal anything with the patient’s consent. And, that consent is not always a comprehensive and universal one. 

It is the sole discretion of the patient to determine whether the entire picture is divulged. Short of being complete, the narrative is more often not a valid depiction of the scenario. Less than all the data about a patient’s medical record means less than all the story.

Here are the top 5 falsehoods Hollywood often recirculates:

A star hospitalized for Exhaustion

Exhaustion is not a reason a physician would admit a patient to the hospital. This “diagnosis” does not tell the whole tale. Specifically, “heat exhaustion” is an accurate depiction of a heat-related illness usually accompanied by substantial dehydration that necessitates urgent medical evaluation. But, exhaustion by itself is not a disease state. It can be a symptom of other conditions that require treatment. Fatigue is a meaningful sign of physical or mental health disease, in particular when protracted. This requires a complex work-up to rule out the more manageable disorders like iron deficiency anemia, underactive thyroid or infections to severe ailments like leukemia. Depression, stress, lifestyle factors like alcohol or substance use and medications are also possible etiologies.

A star posing in a bikini—having lost all the baby weight—while breastfeeding hours or days after delivering a baby by C-Section

First, a C-section is a major surgery. Though it is one of the more routinely performed ones and most women do quite well, this does not eliminate the reality that it requires a recovery that surpasses one day. Not all C-sections are the same. There are occasions, for example, when the infant is in distress and that baby must come out expeditiously. In those cases, it is get that baby out and repair mom later which warrants a more involved recovery. 

Second, breastfeeding is often not intuitive and moms customarily struggle in the early days and weeks after birth. The act requires tremendous support, in particular when not delivering vaginally and in a first time mother given that these factors prompt milk production to be delayed. The perpetuation of the concept that it is simple for all women imposes significant, unnecessary pressure on new mothers while contributing to unrealistic expectations. We should be encouraging accurate depictions that buoy new mothers, not further stress them. This will serve to nurture their success with breastfeeding.

Third, as per loss of baby weight, the individual is the variable. This is a challenge for many women, less so for others. It is also rarely disclosed by Hollywood what other surgeries were performed at the time—e.g. liposuction, tummy tuck. What we see is not always the full picture.

Speculation around sudden or unexpected death in an “otherwise healthy” young person

Sadly, we hear too often of an unexpected death in a celebrity. Then, the speculation grows often erroneously. When a young person who is genuinely otherwise healthy (e.g. free of chronic disease or undiagnosed with any) unexpectedly dies, there is usually a reason. Conditions that go undiagnosed can be a culprit, for example, fatal irregular heart rhythms (aka arrhythmias), unknown cardiovascular or valve disease. Aneurysms or vessel malformations that catastrophically rupture in the brain, even aorta. Sometimes these are spontaneous, other times they bleed more slowly. If proper medical care is not rapidly initiated, then a disastrous outcome is inevitable. 

The following are responsible as well: overwhelming infection, trauma (e.g. accidental, secondary to violence or self-induced), anaphylaxis, side effects from or combinations of medications, toxin exposure or drug and substance abuse overdosing. Some of these circumstances could be avoided if appropriate medical intervention were initiated in a timely manner.

In particular, when addiction is suspected, the televised refrain is often overly simplistic, “he had been clean for twenty years.” Addiction is a complex condition that cannot be fully understood from a sound bite.

Celebrity endorsed products are miracle cures

All products aren’t bad. But, most aren’t necessary. Celebrities are paid to endorse them whether they believe in them or not. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet while regularly exercising, minimizing your stress, getting proper sleep, remaining socially connected, staying substance abuse-free, not smoking, avoiding injury while employing reasonable risks and finding joy are your best bets for ensuring longevity.

No fad diet or miracle vitamin or supplement will likely extend your life expectancy. In fact, the vitamin and supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar one. Your body -when the gastrointestinal tract is normal and a person lacks other disease- most optimally digests nutrients the old-fashioned way, by eating. Oral vitamins are not absorbed as well and can cause issues in excess, for example. Always speak to your doctor —who knows your entire medical history and what other medications you are taking —to guarantee that you aren’t doing any harm to yourself and to discuss what deficits you actually have that require replacement. If any! 

How comas are depicted

The causes of comas are complicated. Medically induced ones occur for an important reason that generally reflects a more severe condition. Profound head traumas or protracted lack of oxygen to the brain—often from a prolonged cardiac resuscitation or a compromised airway— can yield devastating effects. The movies tend to underplay the complexities of damage and interventions required. The take home here is to appreciate there are many varieties of coma and it is the etiology that will best convey the vital information necessary to comprehend the long term implications. The how will best inform the extent and capacity for reversibility.

In summary…

Don’t always take medical information at face value when delivered via a publicist, anchor or secondary (or even primary) source. When a public forum or camera is in the mix, the data is often incomplete. When in a film— since it is typically not the central theme, short cuts in storytelling are the norm. Your own physician can be an invaluable resource in stopping the spread of misinformation. In clarifying falsehoods, you will reduce your own anxiety and enhance your own well-being.

Remember: When something doesn't make sense, it is usually because it doesn't make sense.