Michael Jackson's medical enabler

Our view: Doctor's trial will expose 'Hollywood health care' culture of indulgence

February 10, 2010

There was never much doubt that the doctor who gave pop king Michael Jackson a powerful cocktail of narcotics and the anesthetic propofol in the hours before the singer died last July in a rented Los Angeles mansion eventually would be called to account. On Monday, Los Angeles police charged Dr. Conrad Murray, a cardiologist whom Mr. Jackson had hired as his personal physician in preparation for a hoped-for comeback tour in London, with involuntary manslaughter in the singer's death.

Why did it take authorities eight months to bring charges against Dr. Murray? In all likelihood, the delay was caused by prosecutors' need not only to gather evidence and interview witnesses but to take every precaution to avoid the kind of public relations missteps that could sink what clearly will be one of the biggest high-profile celebrity cases of the decade. Mr. Jackson's international fame, and the legions of fans who have been re-energized in the months since his demise, guarantee that any trial centered on his passing from the scene will be the subject of intense media scrutiny around the world.

What's more disturbing has been the apparent inaction of California's medical licensing establishment, which so far as we can tell hasn't lifted a finger to conduct its own inquiry into the incident or even question whether Dr. Murray should be allowed to keep practicing medicine in the state. This, despite a coroner's report citing the drug propofol - a powerful anesthetic normally used only in hospital settings that Dr. Murray gave Mr. Jackson as a sleep aid at home - as a primary factor in the singer's death. (A spokesperson for the California Medical Board said Tuesday that the agency is working with police and prosecutors through the state attorney general's office and has no independent authority to discipline physicians, but that is no excuse for silence in the matter.)

Was Mr. Jackson's death at 50 an instance of the notorious "Hollywood health care" sense of entitlement, by which rich celebrities demand that doctors treat their maladies - real or imagined - with prescription medicines of their own choosing? That's the kind of "Cadillac health plan" authorities should be going after, not the vision and dental benefits of union workers.

Was Dr. Murray so intimidated by Mr. Jackson's wealth and fame that he allowed himself to be used as the singer's personal drug dealer, dispensing medications he knew were potentially lethal against his own better judgment? Or was he simply willing to do whatever it took to keep his rich and famous client happy - and his $150,000-a-month fee coming in?

Perhaps it's no wonder Dr. Murray's professional colleagues have been so reticent to discuss his professional competence and ethics. Surely he is not the only celebrity physician to have allowed himself to become an enabler of the beautiful people's addictions. Pulling the plug on the culture of indulgence that too many doctors cultivate with their rich and famous clients won't bring the King of Pop back, but it may help save future performers from a similar fate.


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