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Sensationalism And Misinformation About Diabetes: Oprah And Doctor Oz Are At It Again

The Open Letter Mailbag.  Also looks like a sack of potatoes.  BUT LOW CARB ONES!  :pDear Oprah and Dr. Oz,

Diabetes is very expensive to manage and to treat the complications of, but what comes at an even higher cost is the damage of statements from a doctor, claiming that diabetes is reversible. I was diagnosed as a child, and my type 1 diabetes is not the result of any controllable factors. However, I have many friends who have type 2 diabetes who can make the same claim.

I can’t lie – I had a lot of hope about your episode regarding diabetes.  Even though it was billed as “the silent killer” and even though I knew you’d show the darkest side of diabetes-related complications possible to “sensationalize” this disease, I was holding out because I wanted this episode to be accurate.

Dr. Oz, you are a doctor, and a mouthpiece for the medical community.  I realize you are a cardiologist, not an endocrinologist, so you can’t be expected to know everything about every medical condition, but I’m surprised you were chosen as the expert on diabetes.  I understand that doctors are human, as are their patients, and no one expects you to be an expert on every medical condition.  I actually respect doctors who admit that they can do a lot, but can’t do everything.  And since you aren’t an endocrinologist, I’m not shocked at your casual mentions of the two types of diabetes, not making clear distinctions between the two.  (Actually, I believe it was Oprah (or her husband, Richie Cunningham) who continued to bring up the “type 1 or type 2” question.)

I was hoping that you’d take a clinical approach, instead of one that generalizes diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a very serious disease and shouldn’t be put in that “lose weight and you’ll save the healthcare system millions” category. You had an opportunity, and a duty, to educate the public about the different kinds of diabetes, and to help people understand what methods of treatment work best.

I was disheartened to see how this show was handled, editorially.  You two started off by saying that diabetes is an epidemic, one that will eventually bankrupt our healthcare system.  After discussing how insulin and glucose work in the body, you then cut to Laureen.  Laureen is 44 years old, on dialysis waiting for her second kidney transplant, and a double amputee.  You zoom in closely on her tears as they fall, as she laments how she has been dealing with diabetes for most of her life and wishes that she took better care of herself when she was young.

(Back to the studio:  Oprah asks if Laureen was a type 1 or a type 2 diabetic.  Dr. Oz says she was type 1 diabetic.  “She’s type 1.  She’s not making enough insulin.  Type 1 is genetic.”  I’ll admit this is one of the first times I’ve ever heard type 1 and type 2 even mentioned in the same breath in mainstream television.  And then in the next breath:  “Diabetes is an epidemic.”)

Why show a type 1 diabetic with serious complications, and then say that diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the country?  You need to specify that diet and exercise, or lack thereof, did not cause Laureen’s type 1 diabetes.  Yet you want people to see the horrible effects of type 1 diabetes on her body and then say that a generalized “diabetes” is an epidemic.  Type 1 is not an epidemic.  Type 2 diabetes is.  And thanks to your mishandling of the facts, ignorance now joins the epidemic status as well.

Do you realize how frustrating it can be to live with diabetes, of any kind?  The testing, the injections, the complications, the daily fear of what may happen while you’re driving or – worse – what may happen while you sleep?  The physical impact of diabetes is tremendous, as you both illustrated with your jar of glass shards, representing what an excess of sugar in the blood stream can do to blood vessels.

But do you realize how equally frustrating the stigma of diabetes is?  How we are so often viewed as having “brought this on ourselves” or as not working hard enough to prevent complications?  I’ve written in my blog countless times about the impact of diabetes and guilt, but you wouldn’t understand that. You understand ratings.  You understand getting your name out there and having people click on your website ads and tune into your show.  You understand that showing a woman with missing limbs and streaming tears will make people sit on their couches and watch your show.  What you don’t understand is how some of us felt, watching from our homes.  Opinions vary on how your show handled diabetes, but for me, personally, I feel like you just blended the worst of both kinds and then barreled into generic advice about generic diabetes symptoms and “remedies.”

Now please don’t get me wrong:  I’m grateful for having more of a spotlight on diabetes.  For all the times I’ve wanted to see diabetes featured on the Oprah show, I feel somewhat guilty for criticizing how your portrayed the disease.  But it’s hard for me to disconnect logic (i.e. not everyone has type 1 diabetes so not everyone will understand what information is correct or incorrect about diabetes) from my body’s visceral response.  I know that during many points in your show, I felt so frustrated.  I wanted clarity to be delivered to the parts of society that are  unfamiliar with diabetes.  I wanted to have people watch your show and come away thinking, “Wow.  There’s more than one type of diabetes?  It’s not all about diet and exercise, but there are people who don’t have a choice in this diagnosis?”  Instead, I’m afraid that people will continue to think that diabetes is just diabetes, and that there is no distinction between the causes or the treatments.  They’ll think that all diabetes is controllable and treatable and potentially reversible.  That it just requires work, and for the diabetic to not be lazy about taking care of themselves.

If one dollar of funding towards type 1 diabetes research is put back into a potential donor’s pocket because they believe, as a result of your words, that all types of diabetes are the same and that all diabetics simply didn’t take the measures to “prevent” their disease, this is your burden.

And for those of us with diabetes, we will have to carry the burden that society doesn’t deem us “worth curing” because they think we did this to ourselves.

Kerri Sparling
Type 1 diabetes for 23 years … and counting

NOTE:  To send your comments to Oprah, click this link.

*This blog post was originally published at Six Until Me.*

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2 Responses to “Sensationalism And Misinformation About Diabetes: Oprah And Doctor Oz Are At It Again”

  1. Tiffany Ellis says:

    Thank you, Kerri! I’m not an Oprah fan but I have many friends that live by her words like it’s gospel! I had to share this on Facebook for my friends that were misinformed about the disease.

    Tiffany E.
    Fellow Type 1 diabetic for 24 years … and counting

  2. Kelly Davis says:

    Thank you so much for writing this!!! I see and hear this all the time and its so frustrating. People really don’t have a clue there is a difference and a medical professional has duty to make that very clear!!!

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