After serious self-reflection, is there redemption for Dr. Oz?


Recently, Dr. Oz has come under scrutiny for his information on a number supplements that he alleges help with weight loss. Over the past 2 years, he has presented information about 3 diet supplements: green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and garcinia cambogia. After reviewing the available information, I can not agree that there is compelling scientific information to recommend these products. I am a bit bewildered that Mehmet Oz, a very well trained cardiothoracic surgeon, currently a professor of surgery and former full-time academic physician at Columbia University, would repeatedly go out on such a limb.

Recently, our government became involved. Members of Congress raked Dr. Oz repeatedly over the hot coals, perhaps for good reason. They said that Dr. Oz misrepresented the facts, and that he should know better. Really? Our elected officials, who the Gallup polls repeatedly show that our nation does not trust, are calling Dr. Oz out? Isn’t the pot calling the kettle black? Now that is hypocrisy at it’s best. Nevertheless, I think Dr. Oz got the message. But just to be clear, Dr. Oz maintains that although he may use flowery language, he still believes in the products he presented.

So who is Dr. Oz anyway? By all accounts, both written and from three of my colleagues who know Dr. Oz well, he is a fine person and physician. You might find this article from the New Yorker; I found it fascinating. Essentially, this well-written article describes a brilliant, compassionate man who evolved from being a physician to arguably the world’s most famous physician communicator.

Physician influence and power: Do all physicians recognize their power?

I can see how Dr. Oz got into this controversial situation. I can share a similar experience in my own evolution as a physician. From the time you begin medical school, you learn, on a daily basis that you are doing serious, important work. Generally, you become keenly aware that people are interested in what you say, and that how you say it can make a difference. You learn that, at least while wearing the doctor’s white coat, you are a little different than everyone else.

Years ago, when I was training, nurses would even get up and give you their chair. That blew me away — and I stood. Hard-working nurses need their rest too. In fact, it took me a while to appreciate (it’s an evolution) that every link of the health care chain is important, not just the doctor. When I would get home after a hard long day of work, I was just Dad, or Harry, or leader of my pack of dogs — it was back to reality. That began to happen less and less for Dr. Oz; he became the LeBron James of medicine and perhaps, as a superstar, he lost his way.

So how do I feel about Dr. Oz? At various times, I was frustrated by him. At other times, I was impressed at his ability to communicate complex ideas to his audience. So yes, if you think of his story as a book, there are some chapters that, in hindsight, he would perhaps write differently, just like the rest of us.

However, if you look at the overall book, I think you can see the theme; he is trying to make the world a healthier place, and he practices what he preaches. We all know that obesity is the biggest problem in America and Dr. Oz has helped us to understand what we can do to change that. And I for one applaud that.

The consistent Oz message, obesity and America, who can argue with that?

All of you know that reaching an ideal healthy weight is something I have been talking to patients about for 27 years. And over that time, I have been refining my views on diet, exercise, sleep and stress reduction. To that end, I have been writing a book that I am hopeful will be completed by this fall. In my book, I try to make my recommendations on evidence-based medicine. But it’s not all black and white. The gray areas that I talk about come from the years of doctoring and determining what works and what does not. Nonetheless, we, as physicians, have a duty to you, the patient, to be very careful with the information in the gray areas.

The trip to the Land of Oz and the voice behind the curtain: Can we see how we portray ourselves?

Throughout our lives, we get messages. They come in many ways; some directly, some indirectly, some from painful experiences. I believe that his recent public scrutiny has really rocked Dr. Oz. I watched his facial expressions during the Congressional criticism, and I bet he realized — maybe for the first time — that he was looking like a snake-oil salesman rather than a physician. It appeared to me that he was in serious pain. Self-reflection, I believe, is the mark of a good person and physician. I think that by being called on the carpet, Dr. Oz was jolted by an image of himself that he was not entirely comfortable with. I wonder if he saw that, in his zeal to help, he may have enthusiastically misrepresented the facts. I would wager that he now understands, more than ever, his tremendous power to influence his patients: the audience.

When you self-reflect, who do you see? Do you see the same person everyone else sees? Do you remain consistent despite your audience? Does everyone else perceive you the way you perceive yourself? In the Land of Oz, the Cowardly Lion always had courage, the Tin Man always had a heart, and the Scarecrow always had a brain. We, the audience, saw that, even though each of them did not. Hence, the importance of self-reflection.

So to me, it’s still OK to follow the yellow brick road; stay tuned for a different Oz.

Harry A. Oken is an internal medicine physician. 

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