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Michael Hiltzik

Dr. Oz fires back at his critics -- with misdirection and an absurd defense

Dr. Oz often comes off more like a carnival barker than an MD. Here's why that's a problem for all doctors

Those who feared that the TV medical show host Dr. Mehmet Oz would only profit from a recent call by a group of 10 doctors for Columbia University to dump him from its faculty have turned out to be absolutely correct.

The Oz counterattack unfolded on Thursday and Friday, in a lengthy segment on his show and appearances on some obliging media outlets. As is the case with many of the health recommendations on his popular daytime program, it was deceptive and selective--designed not to inform, but to obfuscate.

Oz's strategy was to paint himself as a victim and a target of powerful interests angered by his truth-telling on behalf of "our quest to make America healthy." He painted the controversy as one over his right to free speech. "These 10 doctors are trying to silence that right," he declared, sounding like a refusenik of the Soviet era. "I vow to you right here, right now, we will not be silenced."

No kidding. No one with Oz's access to the media has much risk of being "silenced"--not when he was given 1,300 words by Time for an "exclusive" op-ed defense. And an "exclusive" interview in which to defend himself on Thursday's "NBC Nightly News." And a "live exclusive" five-minute interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today Show" on Friday. None of the 10 letter-writers got any of that live air time.

The second major thrust of Oz's defense was an ad hominem attack on the letter writers, whom he depicted as motivated by their connections with the genetically modified food industry and infused with conflicts of interest and ethical shortcomings. We addressed those allegations here, and explained why they shouldn't distract from concerns by others about Oz's own embrace of charlatanism. 

He pointed out in Time that none of the 10 was a colleague of his at Columbia, but he may have spoken too soon. Later Thursday, eight of his fellow Columbia physicians published an op-ed in USA Today complaining about his TV work--"Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms...," they wrote. "This unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships." They didn't call for Oz to be dropped from the faculty, but for restrictions on broadcasts about treatments mandating "clear disclosure regarding their possible side effects and true substantiated efficacy." 

The attacks on Oz were never very likely to sway his devoted audience, and his defense won't persuade his detractors. But the controversy points to some troubling trends in medicine and the media, despite his efforts to distract.

One is that he's not in much danger of losing his audience or his sinecure at Columbia. Another is that he's not the creator of a situation in which unsupportable health advice and nostrums are treated as equally valid as evidence-based medical advice--or even more so. He's merely the most prominent and successful practitioner in a discreditable field. Not only Columbia, but many other eminent institutions, are complicit in a public health scandal. More on that in a moment.

First, let's take a closer look at Oz's defense.

Is he immune from criticism because he's merely exercising his right of free speech? Hardly. Oz exploits his stature as a licensed medical doctor to lend authority to his televised advice. He can't evade his responsibility to exercise judgment and care in dispensing it, much as he tries. On "NBC Nightly News" he asserted that his program is "not a medical show." (Though to Lauer he acknowledged, "it is a medical show...but it's much broader than that.")

On his Thursday program, Oz took particular umbrage at the accusation that he's "promoting treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain--something I tell you every day on this program, I never do."

Is that so? Let's examine a typical segment. The April 16 program featured an audience member who worried about whether her youthful years of drinking and partying might have harmed her liver. Oz advised her to resort to a "liver detox supplement--I'll show you one that I like a lot."

This was a supplement called Hepasil DTX, marketed by Usana Health Sciences, which calls itself "a trusted sponsor and partner of The Dr. Oz Show." Hepasil, Oz told his subject, could help her "reverse a lot of things that may have happened" to her liver. He said it contains milk thistle to "stimulate liver enzymes,"  and "patented olivol," an extract of olives, and alpha-lipoic acid, all of which he vouched for. 

If Oz had any clinical evidence supporting his claims for Hepasil, he didn't offer it on the air. If he thought it might be wise to caution people to be careful about putting a largely unregulated nutritional supplement into their body, he didn't say so. Usana acknowledges that its own health claims for Hepasil "have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration" and that Hepasil "is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

Was Oz acting responsibly in promoting this product to his audience of millions? You be the judge. Is he promoting Hepasil as a "treatment and cure" for "personal financial gain"? Usana, according to the program's end credits, had furnished "promotional consideration and partial production funding" for the segment, and we know it's a "trusted sponsor and partner" of the Oz show. It would be hard for Oz to avoid a personal financial gain from this relationship.

Mehmet Oz is not the only doctor earning money and renown by hawking questionable advice and products. As Alan Levinovitz observes in the Atlantic, many otherwise respectable medical institutions and doctors have embraced quackiness, because it sells.  

We reported in 2013 on the nauseating ties between the supplement maker Herbalife and several UCLA medical faculty members, including professor of medicine David Heber and Louis Ignarro, an emeritus professor of molecular and medical pharmacology. Both are still listed as serving on Herbalife's Nutrition Advisory Board, which Heber chairs. Heber received four stock awards from Herbalife and a firm he's associated with has been paid a royalty of $300,000 a year, according to Herbalife's 2013 annual report. A firm connected to Ignarro collected at least $17.8 million from Herbalife since 2003. (Neither Heber nor Ignarro was mentioned in Herbalife's 2014 annual report.)

Such relationships with supplement makers and promoting of scientifically unsupported elixirs and panaceas do more than undermine the institutions and doctors. They sap the ability of medical science to fight trends such as vaccine skepticism, because they imply that there might be something to any faddish claim that comes down the pike. 

On his show, Dr. Oz often seems to act more like a carnival barker than a physician. So it's not surprising that the essence of his defense is that he's a doctor but just doesn't play one on TV. But the danger posed by his show isn't only to himself, it's to all doctors, and all patients. The medical profession and medical institutions like Columbia and UCLA better get their act in order, quick, or they'll have no credibility with the general public at all.

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