An Open Letter to Dr. Phil

Dear Dr. Phil,

Late last week, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter about a statement on your website. In the summary of the show Saving Alex, youare quoted as stating that as a consequence of being obese, Alex may develop "medical complications … including rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension and heart attack."

Rheumatoid arthritis is not a medical complication of being obese. Osteoarthritis, on the other hand - the "wear and tear" arthritis - can be. RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks itself, causing a chronic inflammation in synovial tissue and erosion of the cartilage that cushions the surfaces of joints. We don't know what causes the immune response that triggers rheumatoid arthritis, although there are some indications that smoking, periodontal disease and a certain type of bacteria in the gut may be involved. It affects 1% of the population, women three times more often than men. In the last 12 years, the Biologic medications have made a huge difference in the treatment of RA and it is now possible for some to achieve remission. There still is no cure for this illness.

I have RA. I have had RA since I was four years old and started using a power wheelchair at 16. In 2005, one of those Biologics saved my life. I still use a wheelchair and still have high levels pain every day, but I have a life and a job and I laugh every day. I am also passionate about making life better for others who live with RA and advocate for awareness whenever I get a chance.

I'm pretty sure that you don't personally update your website, but because it is your site, the quote is attributed to you. This makes me wonder if someone made a mistake when updating your website. Regardless of the source of the quote, you/they are not alone in mixing up osteoarthritis with rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, the #1 frustration of those of us who live with RA is that most people believe that the bit of osteoarthritis they have in their pinky or knee is the same as RA.

Dr. Phil, I am not going to engage in an impassioned and snarky diatribe about the quote and what it may (or may not) say about you. That gets us nowhere. Instead, I will ask that you join us in creating awareness about RA. You are in a position to inform. You have a very popular show that reaches a lot of people and can be a terrific partner in helping us advocate for a better understanding of what RA is and how it affects people's lives. This is the type of understanding that can lead to more funds being raised for research. Research that can lead to many more amazing advances in the treatment of RA and one day lead to a cure.

Would you consider doing a show on rheumatoid arthritis? It may not lend itself to the usual format of your show, but every now and again, shaking things up in the name of doing good can be worth it. Perhaps invite Christine Schwab, author of Take Me Home from the Oscars or Karen Ager, who wrote Enemy Within. I'll happily volunteer to join you in a discussion of RA. Kelly Young is also a terrific RA advocate, as is RA Guy.  The point is that there are many knowledgeable health activists out there who can help you in educating your audience about RA.

October 12 is World Arthritis Day. Please join us in making 2011 the year that rheumatoid arthritis became better understood.

And for those of you reading who are not Dr. Phil, please help spread the word by sharing this link. Maybe if we all ask, he'll respond.

Update, October 12, 2011: Just in time for World Arthritis, some exciting news on this issue has happened!