The Sad Story of Oprah's Troubled Pediatrician: Five Tips for Health Journalists

Published on
February 28, 2011

It's doubtful that so many health journalists would have covered the case of the late Dr. Mel Levine if he had not appeared on Oprah.

The fact that he committed suicide in the wake of a lawsuit accusing him of molesting 30 of his patients might have made headlines in North Carolina and Massachusetts, where he practiced. But this story went international last week and it offered several good lessons for health journalists.

1. Understand the complexities of the doctor-patient relationship. Anyone who has written about a doctor accused of doing something terrible knows that patients often rise to the doctor's defense. "He saved my life!!!" they write in effusive emails, followed by slights against the reporter's intelligence and morals. Even patients who suffered at the hands of a physician may feel conflicted because those same hands may have healed them. As Elizabeth Kuniholm, the attorney for some of the patients suing Levine, told a WTVD reporter "For many of those people, he may have also helped them. But, what he did to them has left them with a lifetime - in some cases - devastation and that is the reality."

And then there are his peers. Levine, it appears, did elevate our collective understanding of the way kids learn, and that shouldn't be ignored in the discussion. Tonya Armstrong, a psychologist and director of the Armstrong Center for Hope, told the News & Observer: "The charges against him notwithstanding, his work has contributed to raising our consciousness of learning disabilities," she said.

2. Be wary of experts with perfect teeth. Oprah has had particularly bad luck choosing the medical experts she invites onto her show. Like anyone interested in entertainment first, medicine second, Oprah chooses people who can speak and look like they belong on TV. This is why Dr. Phil is one of the most famous "doctors" in the world. (Most people probably assume he is a medical doctor because of the way he dispenses advice on any number of fronts. He holds, in fact, a PhD in psychology.) Phil McGraw knows how to speak to an audience of millions while still sounding like he is intensely interested in the person sitting in the chair next to him. Unfortunately, the qualities that make a good TV personality and the qualities that make a good doctor are not one and the same. As Tracie Egan Morrissey on Jezebel wrote, the Levine scandal "raises the question of whether O is doing enough vetting of the authors and experts to whom she chooses to lend her credibility." Morrissey put together a great list of questionable docs who have appeared on Oprah.

3. Read the files. So many reporters acted as if Levine's personal and legal troubles were a surprise. But this is a drama that started to play out in 2008. Abby Goodnough at the New York Times wrote a piece in April 2008, four days after Levine had voluntarily placed his license on inactive status following lawsuits from a much smaller group of plaintiffs. She wrote:

The suit also accused Dr. Levine of abusing six other boys, ages 5 to 13, from 1967 to 1984, when they were patients at Children's Hospital. Five of the boys have sued Dr. Levine; one suit was dismissed, and the others are pending.

And she had this important tidbit:

The sixth accuser filed a sexual abuse complaint against Dr. Levine with the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine in 1993, but it was dismissed.

4. Hold the overseers accountable. This means that the Massachusetts medical board knew about sex abuse problems with Levine nearly two decades ago and did nothing. In some ways, that's just as troubling as the actual accusations against Levine. Both Massachusetts and North Carolina boards were asleep at the wheel in Levine's case.  Massachusetts allowed him to practice unfettered without a single blemish on his public profile. North Carolina at least finally got around to revoking his license in 2009. That state provides two documents related to Levine, including one that details some of the allegations against him.

5. Walk the hospital halls. Reporters should be asking tough questions about what other doctors, hospital administrators and staff knew about the allegations and whether there was an effort to cover things up because of the doctor's celebrity status. One of the attorneys suing Levine and some of the hospitals where he worked says that families had complained about him back in the 1960s. His license information lists privileges at University of North Carolina Hospitals, Children's Hospital Boston, Hallmark Health -Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and Winchester Hospital.

If the past is any predictor, my bet is that he will have been encouraged to leave at least one of those hospitals quietly. A hospital's medical staff office should tell you whether a doctor has privileges there, and a good one will tell you when they did and for how long. Some won't. If you get the frosty treatment from the hospital, that's a good place for you to go and actually spend some time trying to talk with staff members. Hospitals sometimes will bar you from walking in unless you are a patient, but you can always catch people in the lobby, in the parking lot or in a coffee shop nearby.

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