Dr. Dean Edell
Before there were Drs. Laura, Ruth, and Drew, there was Dr. Dean—Dr. Dean Edell. At a time when most news networks have a regular stable of on-air doctors—one for every calamity—Edell was a pioneer as one of America’s first media doctors. Edell is the host of The Dr. Dean Edell Show, heard in more than 400 radio stations, as well as host of a daily medical report seen in 75 television markets.
Dr. Edell began his media career in 1978 on KGO Radio in San Francisco. Edell's book, Eat Drink and Be Merry: America's Doctor Tells You Why the Health Experts Are Wrong (Quill, $ 14), was recently published in paperback. The native New Yorker, who received his M.D. at Cornell University Medical School in 1967, moved to southern California to do his residency, became an ophthalmologist and surgeon, and established a private practice in San Diego.
The son of a multipurpose vitamin marketer wanted to become an architect (“I loved The Fountainhead—I wanted to be Howard Roark”) and, instead, became a physician—only to quit the medical profession after one year in practice. But the tall, thin Edell strives to link medicine and the arts; he has published a book on Chinese art, owned a jewelry and antique shop, exhibited his paintings and drawings at Manhattan art galleries (“I thought I was Matisse”) and he describes his current obsession as anatomy books published during the Renaissance.
On the eve of his 60th birthday, Dr. Dean Edell sits comfortably in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Marina del Rey, ordering French press coffee—knowing that it may be the only coffee that’s actually bad for your health—and talking about everything from migraines to Vietnam.
With four ex-wives, five sons, aged 15 to 33, and three stepchildren with his wife, Sharon, who teaches geography and environmental studies at UC Berkeley, scheduling an interview with the busy doctor takes a few weeks. Once interviewed, the doctor is like his whirlwind radio program—he expresses a combination of outrage over managed care and junk science and an exuberance at the prospect of studying science, medicine and technology.
Why did you quit the medical profession?
The answer changes as I grow older. I never liked [being a doctor]. I was a reluctant volunteer. You went to graduate school or you went to the front lines in Vietnam. I went to medical school. I had tried to quit three or four times during medical school and they talked me out of it. I still faced Vietnam. So I had to pick something and I picked eye surgery because I love working with my hands. I always wanted to be an artist or a sculptor.
You write about being devastated after a particular surgical procedure. Was that pivotal?
Yes. Once I got out on my own after the cocooned school, it was really scary. You’re responsible. In one sense, you’re bored as hell because people are coming and going saying doc fix me and most people don’t have exciting rare tumors that you learn in medical school. Most people just want to come and have their hand patted and their eyeglasses adjusted. The grind of it and the times—having been confined for so long—and feeling very unspecial, it was a swirl of emotions. I was pretty depressed. I think the truth is that I was bored. It’s tedious—the same tests for the same indications over and over and over for people who don’t want to take care of themselves and don’t care and want you to fix them and are upset if you can’t fix them—and the majority of your patients have nothing wrong with them and those who do have something that’s going to better anyway. There are physicians who do enjoy their patients but today there are a larger number of physicians who are unhappy. There’s more pressure from the HMOs—there’s a loss of autonomy.
What was practicing medicine like before HMOs?
All the doctors looked forward to a bleak future—they said it, they knew it, they saw it coming. They all said then medicine ain’t what it used to be when the patient was the friend and you could pretty much do what you thought was best for the patient and those days are over. And that was then. It’s much worse now.
Were you the first media doctor?
Actually, Dr. Art Ulene was the first big-time media doctor—and Dr. Tim Johnson. But I think what I did that was different is that I was the only doctor to ever have a daily national TV show. I was doing syndicated radio for ABC and they fired me one day and a man named Ed McLaughlin who was working for ABC said you’re going to get a letter tomorrow firing you—that’s the bad news—the good news is I’m quitting ABC. He was in charge of the entire talk radio network, and [he said] you and I are going into partnership because you’re the best show we got and they’re too stupid to know it. So the next day he and I went into business and we did great. He was the first person to prove that talk radio could be syndicated because before that it was local, local, local. No station would take a syndicated talk program. Larry King was out there, but that was a live overnight show so in a sense mine was the first successfully syndicated national radio talk show.
Then, Ed came to me one day and said hey there’s this guy in Sacramento I want to syndicate also and I said I don’t want to be partners anymore I don’t want to be a part of this and I’ll just take my cut and you go syndicate him—and that guy was Rush Limbaugh. I’d have owned half of Rush[‘s show] by today.
Has your Web site (www.healthcentral.com) survived the technology plunge?
HealthCentral is looking at breaking even or turning a profit in the third quarter. Luckily, we had an e-commerce component and that will help us survive. I’m still excited by the technology.
Do physicians shun you for being too commercial?
I mostly get doctors who want to be me—there’s not a month that goes by when I don’t hear from doctors who want to get out of HMOs.
Some clinical questions; is alcoholism a disease?
In a strict sense, no, I don’t believe it’s a disease. But it’s a useful concept because people get confused when you get abstract.
Are you concerned that 12-step programs replace dependence on the substance with dependence on others?
I don’t believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is the only solution to [alcoholism]. There are plenty of people who beat alcohol abuse without AA. It can get a little heavy and there are lots of stories of abuses—it’s loosely run, often not by credentialed, professional people—but it’s also all there was for a long time. In the 1950s and 1960s, where could an alcoholic turn? And maybe there’s something in the mentality of the alcoholic that tends more towards needing something to hang onto other than themselves.
Do you view Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as a disease?
I just saw last week that some guy came out with a theory that there are five to seven types of ADD—give me a break. Those drugs [prescribed for ADD, such as Ritalin] will feel great—load me up on speed every day and I’ll feel good, too. Is this a disease that needs a drug or is this a type of personality which many great and accomplished people have suffered from? There may be extreme cases where kids sit there whacking their heads against the wall and can’t hold still for anything where medication can help them. But where do you draw the line and at what point should Johnny be put on medication and we don’t know the longterm outcome. We need longterm studies to see what happens to these kids—so far, the studies show that it doesn’t matter whether these kids are put on drugs or not—they wind up the same, some do better, some do worse, some wind up with social problems, some wind up as very independent, creative geniuses. Who knows—we may be drugging very creative people into submission. To me, it’s a diagnosis that has arisen because of the system—schools and parents are overwhelmed and want Johnny to be exactly perfect and managed care encourages quick, easy solutions [like drugs.]
Are you opposed to circumcision?
Yes. We’re the last country on earth to do this to little boys. I come at it from a purely medical point of view. Can we allow cultural practices to abuse children? And what if a culture arose where they want to abuse a kid three times a day or cut off their pinky [fingers]? I think the issue Jews will be faced with—can you just come up with some new practice—like tattooing newborn babies’ noses? Human rights and the integrity of the bodies of children [are] the [key] principle.
Is secondhand smoke a threat?
Secondhand smoke stinks—but is it killing people? There was a study of the wives of the smokers—they have crummy health habits. They eat terrible diets of meat and fat, they don’t get any exercise, but when they show up with worse health statistics, it’s blamed on secondhand smoke, it’s not blamed on all the other factors. We don’t even know how cigarettes affect us. We don’t know what causes cancer. We don’t know what causes the increase in heart disease—it’s not nicotine—nicotine gum actually helps heart disease patients. Carbon monoxide? Well, any kind of smoke has a lot of carbon monoxide—that’s a possibility—but carbon monoxide has a temporary effect; it blocks the oxygen linking to your hemoglobin, then you take a breath of fresh air and it goes away. Is that the cause of chronic problems in smokers? We don’t know—now we’re into secondhand smoke when we don’t even know firsthand smoke does. I think we’re becoming a really, really neurotic, fearful people and politicians and the media love it and know how to feed that monster.
Are you in favor of legalizing drugs?
Yes. I’m certainly for trying anything other than what we’re doing.
Are there any good treatments for migraine headaches?
We’re now starting to wonder: what is a migraine? Maybe all headaches are of migrainous origin. We used to be very strict in our separation—a migraine headache usually pulses and is usually preceded by some type of an aura—from nausea to visual things and it doesn’t always lead to vomiting. What is a tension headache? We don’t know what that is. Now we’re thinking that tension headaches have something to do with muscle contractions and there’s all this stuff about botulism injection shots curing migraine headaches—they’ve done two studies and it works!
So how can paralyzing a facial muscle cure a migraine? I thought migraines were vascular—and they are vascular—but what are the triggers? So the definition of migraine is kind of expanding. In the meantime, most people are being treated with the wrong medication. Headaches are still a mystery and I always urge people: see a headache doctor, like a neurologist specializing in headaches.
Do people regularly come up to you with health problems?
Normally, someone wants an autograph—with me, it’s hey doc, I’ve got this thing here—it hurts over here.
Who approaches you with medical problems more frequently—men or women?
Guys. I think it’s because they’re afraid to go to real doctors and they don’t want to admit pain to their friends or wives. Women are smarter. But people are younger, older—the demographics of the show are kind of holding—and young people are getting neurotic, too. Men may listen to the show sort of voyeuristically and not have to admit that they care about themselves and their bodies.
Variations of this 2001 interview were published in the Hartford Courant, Buffalo News and Los Angeles Daily News.