February 5, 2013

Jeckyll and Hyde: the Two Faces of Dr. Oz

Yesterday, I talked about Dr. Oz and his huckstering green coffee bean extract as a miracle weight loss pill that works even without making changes in diet or exercise.

It's easy to dismiss Pat Robertson, another television promoter of unproven medical cures. He's just one more in our long line of evangelical charlatans.

But Dr. Oz is not so easily dismissed. A profile on him in last week's New Yorker portrays a man who hosts a popular TV program... and is also a top heart surgeon, specializing in heart transplants.

Oz's parent immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s after his father, a thoracic surgeon, won a scholarship to study here. He practiced medicine in the U.S. until he retired a few years ago. Then he and his wife returned to Istanbul.

The younger Oz earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1982, where he won an athletic award for leadership. At the University of Pennsylvania, he was president of his medical school class.

After graduating with medical and MBA degrees, Oz moved to the  New York-Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University.

Dr. Oz the Heart Surgeon
A surgeon specializing in heart transplants, Oz has remained at that hospital, where he has served as vice-chairman and professor in the department of surgery for more than 20 years. He still performs operations there each Thursday.

Oz also directs Columbia's Cardiovascular Institute and Integrative Medicine Program, which he established in 1994. He has published scores of articles on technical issues. He also holds a patent on a solution that can preserve organs, and another on an aortic valve that can be implanted without highly invasive open-heart surgery.

Dr. Oz, the Oprah Protégé
Oprah first referred to Oz as "America's doctor" in 2004, during one of his earliest appearances on her TV show. By 2009, after dozens of appearances on Oprah, he had become so popular that Winfrey offered him his own show, produced by her company.

"The Dr. Oz Show" has won two Emmys and averages nearly four million daily viewers. Esquire named him one of the "75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century." He consistently ranks among Forbes' top ten most influential celebrities.

Oz is one of the authors of the popular "YOU" book series (e.g. "YOU: The Smart Patient" and "YOU: Being Beautiful"). Over a million "YOU" books are in print.

His website -- doctoroz.com -- addresses almost every ailment. He pitches to readers who seem more interested in alternative -- not traditional -- medicine.

The Questionable Dr. Oz
With all his intelligence, talent and success, why does Dr. Oz undermine his credibility with dubious claims and endorsements? Michael Specter, author of the New Yorker profile, sums it up well:
Much of the advice Dr. Oz offers is sensible, and is rooted solidly in scientific literature. That is why the rest of what he does is so hard to understand.
He regularly uses words like "breakthrough," "revolutionary" and "miracle." There are miracle drinks and miracle meal plans. There are miracles to stop aging and miracles to fight fat.

He aired a show on the possibility of converting gays to straights. He devoted another show to the dangers of genetically modified foods, a claim thoroughly discredited by scores of researchers.

He featured several appearances by a medium who helps people commune with dead family members. Oz told his audience, "The last time she was here, her readings blew me away."

To prolong your life, Dr. Oz recommends having 200 orgasms a year. (I need to get busy!)

A buying frenzy, similar to what followed his touting of green coffee bean extract, occurred when Oz introduced raspberry ketone. He called the herbal supplement "the No. 1 miracle in a bottle to burn your fat." The only relevant research he cited had been done on laboratory rats and cell cultures, not humans.

I've often called attention to the lack of evidence supporting Pat Robertson's claims for coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer's. Now I learn that Oz tells his audience -- and with similarly bogus evidence -- that red palm oil may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.

The Bottom-Line Question
Eric Topal, one of the nation's most prominent cardiologists, founded the medical school at the Cleveland Clinic and headed its department of cardiovascular medicine. He has worked with Oz and knows him well. Here's his summary of the Dr. Oz puzzle:
Mehmet is a kind of modern day evangelist. He is keenly intelligent and charismatic. Mehmet was always unique, but now he has morphed into a mega-brand. When he tells people the number of sexual encounters they need each year to improve their lives in a specific way, or how to lose weight in three days -- this  is simple lunacy. 
The problem is that he is eloquent and talented, and some of what he says clearly provides a service we need.
But how are consumers to know what is real and what is magic? Because Mehmet offers both as if they were one.

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