I'm Not a Doctor, but...

doctorABC News Photo Illustration

I'm not sure how many bottles of cough syrup were sold with the line, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV," and I don't know how much touting his non-M.D.-status helped the career of Peter Bergman, who played Dr. Cliff Warner on "All My Children," but the line was recycled enough by late-night comedians to join "I've fallen and I can't get up" and padded shoulders as essential 1980s camp.

I, however, have always been more intrigued by real doctors who sell products.

My fascination with the subject started when my husband "inherited" a cache of old medical journals that had been squirreled away in the storage area of the medical publishing company where he worked.

When the company relocated from New York to Cleveland, the movers found the boxes and -- for some unknown reason -- deposited them in my husband's new office on the North Coast of America (that's how we think of ourselves on the south shore of Lake Erie).

There were two really fascinating aspects to the this treasure trove -- first, the journals were really small, pocket-sized actually, and second, they contained cigarette ads!

Yes. Right there on the back cover was a picture of a doctor endorsing Camels as the choice of most physicians. And Camels weren't the only cigarettes endorsed by the men in white (I found no cigarette ads with women physicians, although some had nurses -- defined by crisp white caps -- lighting the physician's cigarette).

Right then, I was hooked -- not by Camels, but by the idea of physicians taking side jobs as pitchmen.

My fascination has been nurtured by my fascination with both infomercials and those two-page spread print ads for weight loss products that you find in the back of airline magazines -- put a white-coated image into the mix and you've got my attention.

My first thought is always the same: "Is that really a doctor?" Turns out, the answer is often, "Yes."

Several years ago, the NBC newsmagazine "Dateline" investigated infomercials and found out that doctor endorsements were considered a standard part of the package delivered by infomercial producers.

Doctors in Ads: What's the Policy?

More recently, Jon Marshall, D.O., who is identified as a medical resident, was the white-coated face of Hydroxycut products. When 14 Hydroxycut products were pulled from the market last month, MedPage Today went looking for Dr. Marshall but the trail went cold in Chicago.

Of course, it's easier for a medical resident to fade into the woodwork than it is for a well-known inventor of artificial hearts, as Dr. Robert Jarvik found out when Congress decided to look into his Lipitor commericals.

I have to admit, however, that I was a little surprised that Dr. Jarvik was slammed more for the smoke and mirrors rowing sequence than he was for his somewhat slim credentials as a medical authority on endothelial function.

I'll admit, too, that I wanted to turn up the volume when I heard Anerican Medical Association president Nancy Nielsen's testimony at a Congressional hearing when she explained that the AMA wasn't wild about doctors endorsing products.

And then I came across Dr. Dave David. This is a description of Dr. David from his Web site:

His "credibility and sense of sincerity have been well established in the form of his appearances as a television news analyst and commentator. Although he is qualified as a physician to evaluate most any health, fitness, or medical product as a possible spokesperson, his credentials in having taught human sexuality at Harvard University, as well as his many years spent in women's health, make Dr. David the ideal media authority to discuss even the most delicate of subjects."

When I contacted Dr. David, he told me that he has been doing product endorsements since 1992, when he was contacted by a producer seeking a physician endorsement. Since then, he said, he has done "a handful of endorsements," and about eight years ago he launched his Web site.

Dr. David currently has a cosmetic surgery practice in the Boston area. He is a member of the AMA and the Massachusetts Medical Society. I asked him if he knew about AMA policy on physician endorsements and he said no.

AMA Rules for Docs in Ads Leaves Room for Interpretation

When I told him that the AMA says doctors should only endorse products that they use, he agreed.

But when I said the AMA goes on to say that doctors shouldn't be paid for endorsements and that doctors shouldn't be depicted wearing white coats, scrubs or other attire that would identify them as physicians, he had two words: "That's ridiculous."

And it turns out that he was right, up to a point.

When I checked AMA's policy-finder, I discovered that the AMA does allow payment if the informercial or advertisement clearly and prominently states that the doctor was paid to endorse the product.

Which brings me back to Dr. Cliff Warner, the soap opera character behind the "I'm not a doctor, but..." line. Maybe it's time to recycle that approach.

Peggy Peck is executive editor for MedPage Today, a service for physicians that provides a clinical perspective on breaking medical news.