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Why you should change your voter registration to Pennsylvania, Part 2: The Nonsense of Doctor Oz

Credit: Courtesy of doctoroz.com Credit: Courtesy of doctoroz.com
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Dr. Mehmet Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon, author, professor emeritus at Columbia University, and former television personality host who is running against Lt. Governor John Fetterman for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He is one of the most experienced and qualified heart surgeons in the U.S., and also a font of dubious medical information. He has lived a complicated life, and I want to give a fair look at the man who believes he should represent Pennsylvania in Congress.

Mehmet Oz was born in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio to two Turkish immigrants. His father, Mustafa, was an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon who worked in Turkish hospitals well into his 80's. Following in his father's footsteps, Mehmet attended Harvard as a pre-med biology major, where he also played football and water polo. After graduating, he began simultaneously working on his MD and MBA at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he served as both Class President and President of the student body while also completing medical school.

Oz then began his residency at the Columbia-Presbyterian hospital, where he rose through the ranks to become a professor of surgery at the age of 41. During his time at Columbia, he performed roughly 75-100 heart surgeries per year. Dr. Mathew Williams, a fellow surgeon at Columbia, called him a "phenomenal surgeon" with "excellent hands." He also has 11 patents for devices relating to heart surgery.

If Oz's career plateaued here, he would have retired as one of the most successful and accomplished heart surgeons in the world. But that wasn't enough for Oz. In the early 2000's, he began making appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," where he immediately made an impression as a candid, charismatic doctor. He made repeated guest appearances for over six seasons until 2009, when he got his own daytime show, the Dr. Oz show.

The premise of the Dr. Oz Show was simple. Oz wants his viewers to take their health into their own hands by giving them the honest advice that they wouldn't get elsewhere. According to the show description, "no subject is off-limits, as Dr. Oz addresses viewers' questions and talks to health experts about any and all topics, from sex to diet and exercise to diseases and ways to avoid them." The appeal of the show seems pretty clear; scientific communication is difficult, and there's a demand for intelligent people who are good in front of a camera.

But it didn't take long for things to veer into pseudoscience. Granted, Oz was no stranger to supernatural belief — prior to his show, he earned the attention of the New York Times in 1995 for allowing a "reiki" practitioner in the operating room during surgery. Reiki is a procedure involving gentle physical touch in order to "deliver energy to your body,” according to the Cleveland Clinic, and is alleged to aid healing. This may seem quack, but keep in mind this procedure is non-invasive and was used to supplement, not substitute, medical intervention. If the doctor and patient think an energy healer might help with recovery, what's the harm I suppose.

But once the show started, the psychic beliefs really kicked into overdrive. Consider a 2012 episode of his show titled "Medium v Medicine," where he speaks with a woman who said she can communicate with the dead. Or consider his interview with famous TV-psychic John Edwards, where Oz claimed "there are times when science just hasn’t caught up with things.” Believe what you will about the supernatural, but encouraging the general public’s reliance on it as a medical science is unethical and dangerous.

In another episode, he interviewed a self-proclaimed "iridologist,” Mossaref Ali. Iridology is a pseudoscientific, widely-debunked practice purporting that illnesses can be diagnosed from the shape of one's iris. Oz concludes the interview saying that these are "ancient traditions," and, "Who am I to dismiss them?” I will quote Dr. Steven J. Dell, an ophthalmologist who retorted, "Who? Oz is a trained clinician and scientist, someone who can read a scientific article with a critical eye. He is someone who can filter out the noise of the placebo effect or discern the simple carnival tricks of a charlatan. The problem is that most people in his audience cannot."

And that's the problem with "The Dr. Oz Show," isn't it? He is an extremely well-educated, highly competent doctor who can save lives with surgery. But that makes for rather dull TV. To increase ratings, you've got to have a heart surgeon endorse questionable alternative medicine, even if it misleads the audience

In 2015, a group of 10 doctors wrote a letter to Columbia's Dean of Medicine, urging the removal of Dr. Oz from his faculty position at Columbia. They argued that "he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain." A study by the British Medical Journal randomly selected 80 claims from 40 episodes of the Doctor Oz show, and found that evidence only supported 46% of these claims.

The dubious claims of "America's Doctor" has led to a thriving industry of sketchy supplement manufacturers and medical grifters riding his coattails. I'll highlight one particularly horrific case. While a guest on Oprah in 2005, Dr. Oz entertained the legitimacy of João de Deus, or "John of God," a self-proclaimed psychic surgeon and energy healer from Brazil. Oz said of João, "either he's a healer who has found some talents that he has innately within him and can help people — or he's crazy." (I have to appreciate how that sentence is a master class in plausible deniability). João gained a massive cult following, with people traveling from around the world to receive treatment for their incurable illnesses. He also sexually abused his patients on a nearly incomprehensible level; the accusations number over 300. The man was plainly a grifter, but Oz's decision to platform him almost certainly augmented the scale at which he could commit his abuse. To top it off, he also has a history of promoting products sold by companies in which he owned an undisclosed financial stake.

Oz is a career-focused man with insatiable ambition and a compulsive need to be the best. He wasn't satisfied with being one of the most successful heart surgeons in the world, and he wasn't satisfied with having one of the most successful TV shows in America. So now, he's trying his hand at elected office. In an article by Vox, Dr. Richard Greer, a colleague of Oz, told a reporter, "Maybe he should be president. I would vote for him." I sincerely think that might be Oz's end goal here.

To put it bluntly, Dr. Oz is a self-interested, opportunistic snake-oil salesman who has built his career and fortune by preying on people's frustration with the medical industry. He has abused his position of respect as a doctor and his position of power as a TV personality to harm others for his own enrichment. He makes unscientific and irresponsible claims, and is callous toward their consequences. He represents the dangerous intersection of celebrity culture and pseudoscience and, as the AMA Journal of Ethics put it, "is a dangerous rogue unfit for the office of America’s doctor.”

Once again, I implore anybody reading this to please change your registration to Pennsylvania. Dr. Oz is a dangerous, dishonest individual who has no business holding elected office.