Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz is arguably one of America’s best-known doctors and television personality, thanks in part to his syndicated TV show The Dr. Oz Show, which is seen each day by millions of devoted viewers and lauded support from media evangelist, Oprah Winfrey. However, he is going on the offensive after a group of 10 physicians recently wrote a letter to the dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University (where Oz is the vice chair of the department of surgery for the college of physicians and surgeons) that asserted that he should be stripped of his academic credentials.
The letter stated that Oz is “guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments,” had shown “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain,” and that because of this “Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution [is] unacceptable.” In a statement posted on his Facebook page last week, Oz said: “I bring the public information that will help them on their path to be their best selves. We provide multiple points of view, including mine, which is offered without conflict of interest. That doesn’t sit well with certain agendas which distort the facts.”
According to medical experts, only 46 percent of the recommendations on his show were supported by evidence. There is now a huge population of “virtual patients” whose health and purchasing behaviors are influenced by the increasingly popular group of physicians offering medical advice on the airwaves. What happens when a doctor’s job in media-medicine collides with office or hospital-based medicine? Oz is a case in-point. Last December, BMJ published a study demonstrating that half of Oz’s recommendations either lacked scientific support or were completely contradicted by publicly available data. When Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, during a Senate hearing on weight-loss pills, asked him about these issues, Oz responded by saying, “I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.”
David H. Gorski, a prominent surgical oncologist and managing editor of the blog Science-Based Medicine says that the chances that Columbia would fire a tenured professor are essentially nil, especially since Oz has brought some of his feel-good therapeutic approaches into his operating rooms at Columbia, without resistance from the university. Gorski’s conclusion is that the letter was issued merely “to create embarrassing publicity for Dr. Oz and Columbia University,” which will have limited impact. Oz’s position at Columbia University does not appear to be in jeopardy. When asked whether Oz would keep his job, Doug Levy, the chief communications officer at Columbia Medical Center, said, “The university is committed to the principle of academic freedom, which means our faculty are encouraged to participate in public discussion.”
Many people argue that Oz should be treated more like a Kardashian than like a cardiothoracic surgeon. After all, he’s a television star and his conduct is, unfortunately, common. There have been plenty of media personalities selling false hope to desperate people. But Oz is different precisely because he is smart, well trained, and influential. How are we to react when he offers his show as a platform for Theresa Caputo, a medium who says she can link us with the dead, or Jeffrey Smith, a former yoga instructor whom Oz considers an expert on genetically modified products? Oz says, “I know I’ve irritated some potential allies in our quest to make America healthy. No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. And these 10 doctors are trying to silence that right.”
But what role does freedom of speech play in health communication? Should Oz’s exploration of alternative methods of medicine take the place of conventional medicine? Oz’s suggestions to ease Americans’ anxieties as the real division in health care emerges between people who want treatments to be subject to scientific scrutiny and the people who resist the findings from that research if they deliver results they don’t like. Can we trust Oz to provide us with the scientific research or is the problem that he will endanger the public’s health by legitimizing alternative medicine traditions? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
Now in its sixth season, The Dr. Oz Show reaches about 1.8 million viewers each weekday for the week ending April 5, according to Nielsen ratings.