The sick and famous

When stars are ailing, doctors tell all on

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
September 20, 2010

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Q. Your day job is pathology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, but last year you launched with your wife, Dr. Michele Berman. What have the big stories been lately?

A. Michael Douglas has generated a lot of traffic because he has throat cancer. A few months ago Ozzy Osbourne announced he was having his genome sequenced to find out why he is still alive after five decades of substance abuse. Of the most popular search terms [on Internet search engines] in the last two weeks of June, number 5 was lupus. Why should that be? That’s the week that Lady Gaga publicized the fact she might have lupus. It was clear to us that people follow celebrities but they are also using them as cues to learn more about these conditions.

Q. A British study published this month said cervical cancer screening went up markedly following the widely publicized death of television personality Jade Goody from the disease. Does that back up your approach?

A. We were tickled to see that article come out and validate everything we do. What that article said is that a celebrity’s illness attracted a lot of attention to medicine. However, [it also said] less than 10 percent of those articles contained useful medical information and less than 1 percent contained a kind of balanced account of all of the medical facts behind the disease. What that paper recommended is that health providers maintain an awareness of what’s going on with celebrities so they can quickly answer patients’ questions.

Q. Where do you get your information?

A. We take reports of celebrity illnesses from the general news media. We can’t afford our own AP feed.

Q. What’s your funding source?

A. We have a Small Business Innovation Research grant and our own resources. We are now syndicated by [the medical news and continuing medical education service] MedPage Today.

Q. Sometimes it’s Lady Gaga and sometimes it’s someone catching the flu on “Dancing With the Stars.’’ Do you ever run out of material?

A. Not a day goes by where there’s not something we can use and turn it into a teachable moment. For better or worse, people identify with famous people. When Steve McQueen got mesothelioma and went to Mexico to get an unorthodox treatment, a lot of patients followed him. . . . What we are trying to do is to interject what’s the standard of care, what’s the research behind it, and what’s just baloney.

Q. What’s the most popular topic?

A. Diets of the stars. What is Gwyneth Paltrow doing to stay slim? ELIZABETH COONEY Interview was condensed and edited.

Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at