He may no longer be a regular on Grey’s Anatomy, but actor Patrick Dempsey tells Marc Iskowitz the TV series has propelled his cancer advocacy. Lecia Bushak reports on the bipartisan push to reform pharmacy benefit managers, as well as the surgeon general’s report on loneliness as a public health threat. And Jack O’Brien briefs what’s trending on healthcare social media: Michael J. Fox’s interview with Jane Pauley, the TikTok challenge that landed a teen in the hospital, and Pinterest’s mental health campaign with Maybelline. Music by Sixieme Son.

Podcast Transcript

Iskowitz: Hey, it’s Marc. 

The phrase, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” has become a staple of our comedy lexicon to be used any time when confronted by a medical issue that’s beyond our grasp. My case, that involves anything that requires more than a Band-Aid. 

But for about a decade, actor Patrick Dempsey played what became one of TV’s most well-known medical roles: Dr. Derek Shepherd, the neurosurgeon on Grey’s Anatomy. 

As with our previous celebrity guests, he has a compelling health angle: his cancer center initiatives. Dempsey played the TV doctor role for so long that people now project that role onto him, which facilitates his efforts to promote the center. 

I sat down with Patrick after his day one keynote along with SurvivorNet co-founder and CEO Steve Alperin at the Health Front event hosted by PHM last week. He was extremely gracious, well-informed, especially as it pertains to the holistic needs of cancer patients and open and honest about the inspiration by the center: his mother, who passed away in 2014 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

His mom endured no less than 12 recurrences. For Patrick, he was nothing less than a sign of resilience but also became the inspiration for the Dempsey Center, which opened its doors in Maine in 2008 and is now operating in several states.

In advance of Mother’s Day coming up Sunday, May 14, it’s our pleasure to bring you a one-on-one with Patrick Dempsey. 

Lecia is also here with a health policy update.

Bushak: Marc, I’m here to give a rundown of the bipartisan push for Congress to reform pharmacy benefit managers. Plus, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls out loneliness as a public health threat.

Iskowitz: And Jack, what’s on top this week on the healthcare social media front.

O’Brien: So this week we’re switching up our formatting for the segment to highlight the top three healthcare stories trending on social media and dive into each one of them. 

This episode, we have Michael J. Fox’s emotional interview on CBS Sunday Morning, a TikTok challenge leaves a teen in the hospital, and Maybelline teams with Pinterest for a mental health awareness campaign.

Iskowitz: We’re here at the Health Front event hosted by Publicis Health Media and I have the great privilege of sitting down with actor-turned-health advocate, Patrick Dempsey, who just got off the stage after a fascinating keynote with Steve Alperin, CEO of SurvivorNet, on the power of supportive care and community care in cancer. Patrick, you played a doctor on TV, but as you pointed out, it was a different discipline, right?

Dempsey: Yes, indeed. He was a neurosurgeon, not an oncologist.

Iskowitz: But we’re here to follow up on your talk a bit more with your personal work in healthcare, including your collaboration with pharma and your center for people living with cancer, the Dempsey Center. One-in-three of us is diagnosed at some point in our life with cancer, so it’s it’s a staggering number

Dempsey: One-in-three puts into perspective and the type of work that we do, we don’t treat the disease, we treat the person holistically. We just simply ask, ‘How can we make your life better?’ We treat the whole family in a holistic way that complements traditional medicine and oncology so they can focus on their discipline and we can focus on the wellbeing of the patient, the family and so forth. Usually, those are the human processes; the human touch and compassion and empathy in a world that, as we see, is really lacking because I think there’s so much fear in the world.

Iskowitz: That was kind of the parting message of your speech, but you also shared a lot about your mom, thank you for that, it was very meaningful. In 1998, she was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer and you called it “a profound piece of news.” With your journey with your mom, particularly in its early stages, what was it like going through that?

Dempsey: My mother was always the strongest figure in the family, right? So to see her vulnerable and to get this diagnosis was so shocking to the entire family, it rocked our whole family and destabilized it? There was the unknown: how long will she survive? Will she survive? How bad is this? What is this? All these questions emerge from that. 

Thank goodness, my sister worked in the hospital so she could navigate a lot of the things that most people can’t and be able to get to the bottom of a lot of these tests. Thankfully, she could get us through that. 

But I was thinking, ‘What is going to happen to other families?’ We talked a little bit about this on stage. So that was sort of the initial way and then it became, ‘What can I do to support my mother’s story?’ or ‘What information do I need’ and then finding out that answer, that was a challenge that took some time.

Iskowitz: That was the key question, as you put it: if we have this very resourceful sister who works in a healthcare system, that’s great, but what if others don’t, and that’s the impetus behind the center?

Dempsey: The information is coming at you so quickly when the doctor only has a limited amount of time before they go see the next patient. It was like bringing a recorder and taping the conversations because you can’t remember it, it’s just too overwhelming. You don’t have time to process it because fear gets in the way or another thought will dominate and you’re no longer listening or you’re out of the moment and all of these things occur. That was what was informing us on saying, ‘OK, well, how are other people dealing with this, how are they coping and do they have the skills?’ Some people do and some people don’t.

Iskowitz: It’s a wonderful way to take that and do something with it. The center, as you said, it’s focused on treating the whole person and compensating scientific and medical efforts as well as complimentary care. I heard you talk about acupuncture, Reiki, among others. You started in Maine and you’re branching out, so give listeners an update, if you would on that, both in terms of the number of people you’re helping and how you’re expanding.

Dempsey: At the end of Q1 2023, we were 57% up on what we were reaching last year, and that has a lot to do with our outreach to the doctors and the oncologists because they’re listening to other doctors and they’re coming to us. 

They’re also getting word of mouth from other patients who’ve been through it or other family members who are getting benefits from the treatments that we’re giving. There are about 9,000 people that are newly diagnosed every year with cancer in Maine. It may be up to 10,000 now because of COVID since a lot of people did not get their screenings and now their cancer is a little bit further along and our need is much greater. 

We’re at 1,600 people that were servicing in Q1, so our goal was to really reach everyone who’s newly diagnosed in the state of Maine as well as stay in touch with the survivors. 

We are in conversation with California, New Hampshire and New York to have another center in connection and collaboration with those people and we’re working in 35 states now and overseas as well. We’re slowly getting out there with the message that our goal is to connect with other like-minded centers and to sort of spread the gospel, if you will, of complementary medicine.

Iskowitz: You talked about the importance of physicians being aware of it as a resource for their patients. 

Dempsey: Yeah, because with my mom’s treatment, I’ve talked about this a little bit, she would talk to those really good doctors within that discipline, but just had a terrible bedside manner. It’s really about how you can bring compassionate, empathetic care to a patient’s life. That makes a difference. It has a huge impact on the healing time frame. You want a safe place where you can be heard and you’re not rushed; that you are meeting them as human beings, not just as a number.


You spoke with Steve about the importance of treating a patient as a person, which is the philosophy behind the center. There’s so much that goes into treating the whole person on this big topic, but perhaps you can talk about where you see the biggest aspects of a person’s character most overlooked.

Dempsey: What we’re hearing and the data is revealing is that the online services and emotional support groups are really key. The counselors are number one; in rural Maine, the ability to communicate with someone if you’re three hours away if they can jump online, it saves them money, as far as the fuel cost and getting to that place. 

It’s at home, which is a much better place for them to be. You want to get them out of the hospital and back home in a safer, healthier environment. You see statistically that if you can get someone out of the hospital and back home, their survival and recovery rate is that much greater. We’re seeing that through our online services, through Dempsey Connects, that’s been something that has been accelerated due to COVID. Acupuncture and Reiki have been second and third, in services that we provide that are really popular and of course, there is nutrition, online yoga, meditation and things like that. 

Iskowitz: You’ve had an amazing career, both on the small screen and the big screen. Talking about using your platform.

Dempsey: I played a doctor on television for so long and it made an impact, so you have a platform and I think it’s easier for people to look at me as a doctor in a pseudo sort of way. I’ve been able to use that platform in this most meaningful way and I think the whole purpose in life. It’s to be of service and that’s why we’re here ultimately: to take care of our community, to take care of our family and it’s just an extension of all of that. To have that visibility and fame around the world and people are becoming much more aware of the work that’s been done at the center and to be able to talk about that as opposed to oneself, it’s much more meaningful.

Iskowitz: Let’s switch gears, talk about the work you’ve done with Amgen.

Dempsey: It all started with the Amgen Breakaway from Cancer initiative in California, which was a cycling event. One of the big things we do is this cycling event in September that raises money that allows us to provide the resources at no cost to our clients into our community. It started from that; we’ve had a great partnership over the last 15 years and it’s been a really good working relationship.

Iskowitz: You’ve also published patient stories that help others find real answers by seeing others who share their struggles. Has that helped you strengthen the bond with the work that you did with pharma?

Dempsey: It goes hand in hand with the treatments, you have to have a balance and all of that. If that’s going to give your loved one that better opportunity to survive and to live longer to live in a way that is productive, then you want to have that collaboration. There’s a lot of good work that’s being done. There’s no negative work that’s being done. It’s up to you to find the right people. 

At the end of the day, there is humanity behind companies, most of the time they’ve been impacted. I think that’s why our relationship has lasted so long and why it’s important to give back to that community. 

Iskowitz: 2014 was obviously such an emotional and trying time for your family; talk about the importance of giving back through your advocacy and how that perhaps has helped you process those emotions.

Dempsey: It’s helped channel those emotions and empower you to feel good. With any difficulty that we have in life, when you look at it in retrospect, there’s a gift in it.

From my mother, she lived a very long time after her diagnosis. We had a really good meaningful time together, where we valued it. I got a chance to communicate with her in a way that I probably wouldn’t have in a much deeper way.

In her passing, there was a sense of closure for me. I knew she was in a good place. It was time. 

However, not everyone in my family had the same feeling at the end; there were some things that were unresolved that they didn’t get a chance to communicate with my mother and that will never happen unfortunately. 

Any time you lose a family member, the family dynamic is changed profoundly and it’s never the same. It can bring you together or it can separate you and each family is different. The repercussions after the fact are still there. That’s why we treat a lot of the survivors and a lot of family members after a parent or a loved one has gone. It’s never easy, it’s never something that happens overnight and it affects everyone differently and in their own time. We have to respect that.

Iskowitz: It’s important to maximize the time we have but to take a page from Rodney Dangerfield, I have one last question but in four parts: each stage of the patient journey, what are some of the biggest needs that you see?

Dempsey: First, it’s just getting in there, getting screened and then the time period of waiting for the results.

This is when we want to get in there and be able to help support and start working on the mental and emotional aspects. We want to give patients the tools that they need to be able to survive the highs and lows of the unknown into the present. That’s the biggest challenge. 

Then, also on the other side, is once you go through that level of intensity of treatment to the day when you say, ‘OK, it’s over, goodbye.’ You’re off into the woods again. It’s a very scary time and survivorship is another aspect that we have to talk about and support people that are being diagnosed, treated and surviving. They are sort of left to fend for themselves after that, which is where we come in to be able to give them a home, to give them a sympathetic ear, to be able to support them in survivorship, which is a scary time as well.

Iskowitz: Any other final thoughts on supporting the patient throughout the journey?

Dempsey: We talked about this but it’s really about having compassion and empathy to understand we’re all carrying something with us. We all have a story. Once you understand the story, it’s much easier to really meet that person where they need to be met. And I think that’s the important thing to remember.

Voiceover: Health policy updates with Lecia Bushak.

Bushak: In all the efforts to tackle high drug prices, pharmacy benefit managers have recently gotten the spotlight. Now, there’s a tangible bipartisan push in Congress to increase PBM oversight and transparency, and reform how they work.

Last week, bipartisan leaders at the Senate HELP Committee – including Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Bill Cassidy – introduced a package that aims to reduce drug costs and reform PBMs.

The bills were discussed at a HELP committee hearing Tuesday, where Sanders called out both the pharma industry and PBMs.

SANDERS: While the pharma industry blames the PBMS for high drug prices, the PBMs blame the pharmaceutical industry for high drug prices. The reality is, both of them are right, and that is something we gotta do.

Bushak: One of the bills in the package – the Pharmacy Benefit Manager Reform Act – would require PBMs to be more transparent with employers and insurance plans – and pass rebates to them. The bill would also ban PBMs from charging one price to a pharmacy and a different one to an insurance plan to pocket the difference.

The goal would be to lower health insurance premiums, and save some $2 billion over 10 years.

Sanders said the recent bipartisan push is just the tip of the iceberg on drug pricing reform efforts. Next week, the HELP committee will hold another hearing on insulin prices and PBMs, with CEOs from Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi set to testify.

SANDERS: For anyone here who thinks this is going to be the end of the work we do on prescription drugs, I got some bad news for you because that isn’t gonna be the case. This is not the end, this is the beginning.

Bushak: In the meantime, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called attention to mental health yet again. This time, he’s pinpointed loneliness as a public health threat.

In an op-ed in The New York Times as well as a video posted to his Twitter, Murthy opened up about his own struggles with loneliness, and argued that increasing social disconnect has become an epidemic in the U.S. Loneliness can increase a person’s risk of heart disease, dementia and stroke. It can also raise the risk of premature death at a rate comparable to smoking daily.

MURTHY: This widespread disconnection presents profound threats to our health and well-being. Social connection is as fundamental to our mental and physical health as food, water, and sleep, and it affects our performance and productivity in work, school and communities. Now is the time to invest in building social connection.]

Bushak: In an advisory, Murthy laid out three initiatives to foster social connection – strengthening school-based, workplace and community programs; redefining our relationship with technology; and taking steps in our personal lives to rebuild connections.

I’m Lecia Bushak, Senior Reporter at MM+M

Iskowitz: This is the part of the broadcast where we welcome Jack O’Brien to tell us what’s trending on healthcare social media.

O’Brien: First up, Michael J. Fox gave a moving, eight-minute long interview with CBS Sunday Morning, where he told host Jane Pauley that he is unlikely to reach age 80 due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease, which he has been afflicted with for more than 30 years.

Fox, who has been a leading advocate and fundraiser for research into the incurable, degenerative disease, spoke candidly about the effects on his body, as well as the latest breakthroughs in terms of identifying the condition earlier and treating it.

FOX: I had spinal surgery because I had a tumor on my spine. It was benign but it messed up my spine. Then, I started to break stuff, I’ve broken this arm, I’ve broken that arm, I’ve broken this elbow, I’ve broken my face, my hand.

PAULEY: From falling on things?

FOX: Yes, it’s a big killer with Parkinson’s. Falling, aspirating on food, pneumonia, it breaks down on you, all the ways [Parkinson’s] gets you. You don’t die from Parkinson’s, you die with Parkinson’s. I’m not going to be 80.

O’Brien: One thing I think is interesting as we dive into this first aspect is that Lecia actually wrote a story this week in terms of a social media campaign to try and address Parkinson’s disease. While there’s no science necessarily behind it yet, the thought is at least to try and help people use their body and keep those muscles active so they don’t atrophy.

Bushak: Righ, it’s actually a development of an app called Scrolling Therapy by a Brazil-based pharma company Eurofarma in collaboration with Dentsu. They use AI in the app to recognize people’s facial expressions. So, a patient with Parkinson’s can smile or frown and then those different facial expressions will trigger engagement with social media. Liking a video would be triggered by a smile, for example, and the idea is to help people with Parkinson’s continue to exercise their facial muscles since the loss of facial movement is there. 

The disclaimer is that the FDA has not evaluated this or said that this is a preventive tool or that it does anything to slow the progression. But the people who developed it have the hope that it could be helpful to patients with Parkinson’s.

O’Brien: It was interesting too, that in the story that you wrote, there was a patient that was quoted as saying, ‘I have to look in my mirror every day and I can’t control my body.’ You’re right, they’re kind of almost acknowledging how trapped they feel that even if it’s not FDA-approved, it at least gives them the hope that, ‘I can do something, I can at least have this control over this little thing in my life.’

Iskowitz: Anecdotally, that sounds like a really smart use of technology in the service of healthcare. Just to kind of comment here from a kind of a broad awareness perspective, anytime somebody like Michael J. Fox gets on national news programs like this and talks about his battle with Parkinson’s, it goes far to raise our collective consciousness about this disease, keep the focus on R&D and hopefully keep pushing on that front. 

We naturally connect to the star athlete, the actor that we grew up with, so there’s a natural bond there and so that’s very moving obviously, to see him. It’s heartbreaking, as you pointed out, how frank he is about his own mortality. But it just speaks to the power of celebrity connection and the one-on-one interview to help raise our consciousness.

O’Brien: It’s interesting, the fact that he talks about in the interview, and we’ve written about it before, just how much more fundraising has been going into Parkinson’s through his work. Marc, you wrote a story about Sergey Brin, who put quite a significant part of his fortune behind research into the disease. These are things that, unfortunately, Michael J. Fox is probably not going to ultimately live to see but it gives others hope in their own battle with the disease. 

Onto the second story: the mother of a 16-year-old boy in North Carolina is speaking out after he was badly burned in a TikTok social media challenge gone wrong.

He apparently attempted to use a lighter and spray paint can to replicate the effects of a blowtorch. This unfortunate incident comes weeks after an Ohio 13-year-old died from an overdose while participating in the Benadryl challenge on the viral social media platform.

Bushak: This is the kind of ‘Don’t try this at home’ disclaimer that should be on the vast majority of these videos. I know TikTok has acknowledged that it needs to address some of these things. I know the Benadryl challenge has been around for a while and that the FDA put out an advisory about it a while ago saying that this is very dangerous and it’s still happening, which is concerning.

Iskowitz: Yeah, the whole challenge aspect on TikTok is perhaps more concerning than the DIY-dentistry thread, which we talked about last week. 

We discovered all these kinds of tricks when we were kids just in the playground, like replicating a blowtorch, but social media just kind of magnifies it and takes it to a whole new level. There’s a certain level of competence that has to come with it, too. 

O’Brien: And finally, Lecia reported on how in honor of the start of Mental Health Awareness month, makeup brand Maybelline partnered with Pinterest to roll out a behavioral health campaign to empower young people.

Maybelline’s Brave Together effort seeks to help young people find unique, creative channels to manage their mental health.

The campaign was informed in part by a report released earlier this year by Pinterest, which examined trending searches on the social media platform to determine what mental health topics are particularly top of mind for Gen Z and millennial users. 

The report indicated that certain talk therapy alternatives – from journaling to musical therapy – are on the rise among this cohort.

Bushak: I think it’s interesting because we’ve heard a lot about the research into the negative mental health effects of scrolling on all of these social media platforms. TikTok even recently placed a time limit for kids under the age of 18 to battle that. 

But it’s interesting because Pinterest is trying to turn that around and say that, as a brand, they want to be a social media platform that is good for people’s mental health. That’s what they’re trying to do with this and they released a report that showed that there’s been a significant increase in searches on Pinterest when it comes to some mental health-related channels, like art therapy and physical therapy. People are searching on Pinterest for these kinds of inspirations for mental health and I think they’re trying to build upon that.

O’Brien: It’s interesting that you talked about the music therapy aspect; you’ve written in the past about different companies like Walgreens and Amazon that have leaned into music therapy. These organizations are going to people and saying, ‘Hey, it would be great if you were going and talking to a therapist or talking to a professional, but if it’s journaling, art therapy or music therapy, there are ways that you can improve your mood and make yourself feel less lonely.’

Iskowitz: It’s smart that you left this last one in the third spot and I like this new format because of the importance of mental health awareness and the number of people that are now having challenges which were exacerbated by the pandemic. 

It’s interesting that Pinterest is kind of positioning itself as a good therapeutic social media platform that we can use to find constructive creative outlets. It was a matter of time before one of them tried to separate themselves out from the ‘evil ones.’ We’ve seen a lot of the studies in the news and I believe recently that social media was called out as contributing to teen suicide for the first time a few months ago. The unhealthy amounts of time on social media and to what extent this helps remains to be seen.

O’Brien: You talk about trying to differentiate itself while Twitter is going through its own chaos, Facebook and Instagram have their own lengthy history, and even Reddit has had issues, same with YouTube. But Pinterest is there saying, ‘Hey, if you want to put your vision board together and pursue your own interests and things that make you happy, that’s what we’re here for.’

It’s an interesting way to differentiate themselves on that point. And good on Maybelline, they talked about the fact that they always want to be there for consumers. Obviously, skincare and makeup are another thing that goes into self-esteem, especially with young users online. So good on both of them for stepping up here along with other brands that have made mental health a priority this month.