Many people remember President John F. Kennedy as an eloquent speaker and champion of civil rights. What they don’t realize is that Kennedy had Addison’s disease, a serious medical condition that causes fatigue, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms. He also underwent spinal fusion surgery in the late 1950s, leaving him to deal with frequent back pain.
To manage his symptoms and ensure he had enough energy for giving speeches and meeting voters, Kennedy took a cocktail of drugs prescribed by Max Jacobson, a physician who eventually became known as “Dr. Feelgood.” While under the care of Dr. Feelgood, Kennedy took “booster shots” containing amphetamines and other substances.
The relationship between Kennedy and Dr. Feelgood highlights some of the dangers that can arise when a prominent individual relies on a personal physician to manage their care.
VIP Syndrome in Medicine
In medicine, a VIP patient is a powerful person who tends to inspire awe in doctors and other medical professionals. The VIP may be a celebrity known for their acting or musical talent, a prominent politician or a wealthy individual with many connections in the community.
Despite their expert knowledge, some medical professionals are hesitant to question VIPs or deny their requests for specific treatments. For example, a physician may not feel comfortable denying a VIP’s request for expensive tests or questioning a VIP about their drug and alcohol use. Although many people assume that VIPs receive better treatment, the desire to please powerful patients often leads to worse outcomes, a phenomenon known as VIP syndrome.
One of the negative effects of VIP syndrome is overprescribing. This is when a medical professional prescribes medications more often than needed or in dosages that are higher than typically recommended.
Problems with Overprescribing
One of the main problems with overprescribing is that it can increase a patient’s risk of developing a substance use disorder. Many of the drugs overprescribed by celebrity doctors are painkillers, sedatives and anti-anxiety medications. These drugs have addictive properties, which may cause some people to become dependent on them.
Some researchers believe that overprescribing is a major contributor to the opioid crisis in the United States. In 2020, more than 16,000 overdose deaths were attributed to the use of prescription opioids. Some of those deaths were the result of combining prescription opioids with synthetic opioids, but more than one-third were due to the use of prescription opioids alone.
Overprescribing can also lead to serious drug interactions, especially when celebrity doctors are hesitant to ask their VIP patients about substance use and other risk factors. For example, clonazepam, alprazolam and diazepam — medications used to treat anxiety — can be harmful when mixed with alcohol.
Celebrity Patients and Financial Gain
Another reason celebrity doctors hesitate to say no to their powerful patients is that working with VIPs can be extremely lucrative. Celebrities, politicians and other influential individuals have the resources to pay doctors to follow them around and do whatever they ask them to do.
Working with a celebrity also helps generate positive publicity for general physicians and specialists. For example, Dr. Garth Fisher is now known as the “plastic surgeon to the stars” due to his relationships with the Kardashian family.
The header on Fisher’s website features Kris Jenner and her daughters, making it easy for prospective patients to see that he’s the surgeon responsible for the women’s flawless looks. It’s difficult to get this kind of publicity via traditional marketing methods, causing some doctors to go along with whatever their famous patients want to keep their practices full.
Max Jacobson, Physician, and Other Celebrity Doctors
Max Jacobson, physician to John F. Kennedy, also treated Mickey Mantle at one point. After receiving an injection in his hip, Mantle developed a severe abscess at the injection site. Due to the abscess, Mantle had to stop playing for a while, causing him to miss out on participating in the American League championship.
Despite his notoriety, Max Jacobson is far from the only physician to develop a reputation as a doctor to the stars. Conrad Murray and George C. Nichopoulos also treated major celebrities.
After Michael Jackson died, reports surfaced that he’d been taking propofol at home. Many people were shocked, as propofol is typically used to sedate patients before surgery. In a hospital setting, a patient receiving propofol is monitored closely to make sure there are no adverse reactions.
On June 24, 2009, Jackson was struggling with insomnia, so Murray administered several anti-anxiety medications to help the singer sleep. None of those medications worked, prompting Jackson to ask Murray for some “milk,” a slang word for propofol. Rather than saying no, Murray administered a propofol injection and then left Jackson alone while he went to the restroom. By the time Murray returned, Jackson had stopped breathing.
The medical examiner determined that Jackson died of acute propofol intoxication. Eventually, Dr. Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his role in Jackson’s death.
George C. Nichopoulos (“Dr. Nick”)
George C. Nichopoulos, better known as Dr. Nick, was Elvis Presley’s personal physician and friend. In Presley’s last years, Nichopoulos prescribed a “cornucopia” of narcotics, appetite suppressants and other drugs for the rock-and-roll legend. When Presley died, he had large amounts of codeine and other substances in his system.
Although Dr. Nick denied prescribing some of the substances, he eventually lost his medical license due to his habit of overprescribing. He had several other celebrity patients, including Jerry Lee Lewis.
How Celebrity Doctors Skew Public Perception
For busy celebrities, it makes sense to hire a personal physician who makes house calls. After all, having a personal physician is more convenient than traveling to a doctor’s office while trying to avoid paparazzi and excited fans.
Unfortunately, the use of celebrity doctors skews the public’s perception regarding the safety of prescription medications. When people hear that their favorite celebrities are taking propofol or combining multiple sedatives, they start to think it’s normal. They also think it’s appropriate to take powerful medications to treat even the most minor symptoms. Both of these attitudes increase the risk of drug dependence and substance use disorders.
Discover a Better Way
If your point of view has been skewed by the way celebrity doctors are portrayed in the news, it’s not too late to get your life back on track. FHE Health has compassionate treatment professionals available to help. Call to find out more.