Kicking Dr. Phil's ass to the curb*
November 18, 2004 -- Hello, and thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Today we have with us Dr. Phil McGraw, a clinical psychologist for over 25 years. A man with a successful, nationally syndicated daily television show. And a man who earlier today suggested on the air that the health care system is full of "cute little nurses" who are out to "seduce and marry" physicians "because that's their ticket out of having to work as a nurse."
Phil, on your show today--"Anatomy of an Affair," I think you called it--you had a physician and his wife, whose work was not really discussed. The show was all about the damage the physician had done to his family by having an affair with a nurse with whom he worked. This nurse evidently is now pregnant. And the show was full of all the crucial details, like how the nurse was supposedly better in bed than the physician's wife. And how the physician and the nurse had actually had sex in the physician's own bed while his wife was out visiting her dying father! And you said many women were probably thinking the wife needed to "kick his ass to the curb." Great stuff!
All right. Now, did you or did you not say the following during that show today:
This is a nurse, with a doctor. Now, you know, I spent--I spent a lot of years in the health care delivery system, and I watched doctors and nurses play footsie back and forth. And I watched doctors whose wives worked, put them through medical school, all this, and they come up there with a cute little nurse and they start playing footsie with her. I've seen lots of cute little nurses go after doctors, because they're going to seduce and marry them a doctor, because that's their ticket out of having to work as a nurse.
You did say it? OK, good. Being honest is the right way to go. Especially since we have the transcript. And you also referred to the other woman at one point as the "mistress nurse," didn't you? OK.
Now, Phil, I just have to ask you: what in the hell were you thinking? You've supposedly worked in the health care system for years, you're pals with Oprah, millions of people seem to listen to you. You're not a total idiot. Don't you know that nurses are committed professionals who save lives every day, not by being "cute," but because they have years of college-level science training? Don't you realize that nursing leaders--people with Ph.D.'s, just like you--are changing the future of health care through groundbreaking research and clinical innovation? Could you possibly not know that we're in the midst of a global nursing shortage and associated short staffing that is one of our biggest public health crises? And that the crisis is caused in part by the persistence of outdated stereotypes about nurses--like that they are unskilled, sexually available handmaidens out to snag a physician and quit, since their job is all about bedpans anyway? And that nursing, despite the problems, remains a tremendously fulfilling and worthwhile career?
Now look--I want to be honest with you. You need to hear it. I'm just telling you the truth, that's what you always say, isn't it? I'm not saying no nurse has ever seduced or married a physician. I am saying that your suggestion that this is common, and that nursing is just a distasteful waystation on the way to becoming Mrs. Welby, is harmful to a great profession in a time of crisis. What you said is uninformed, it's irresponsible, and my friend, I think you are in serious denial about the nursing profession. Or should I call it the "mistress nursing profession?" If the other woman in this love triangle had some different job, would you have called her the "mistress engineer" or the "mistress sales associate?" Uh-huh.
You have to take responsibility for what you said. You have to own it, Phil. And then you have to do the right thing. You have to apologize to the 2.3 million U.S. nurses--including the men--who work their asses off every day, saving lives with cutting-edge technology, advocating for patients, teaching people how to return to health. Are you getting the picture?
There's a right way and a wrong way to deal with this. Apologizing is the right way. Saying you understand that your comments were harmful and unfounded is the right way. Saying you know that nursing is a critically important profession, and that the vast majority of nurses are not looking to "seduce and marry" physicians as their "ticket out," that's the right way. Period.
In other words, Phil, it's time to get real.
Also see our Dr. Phil press release.
His on air response (December 20, 2004)
A later attempt to make amends (still inadequate) (July 14, 2005)