Dr. Oz: America’s doctor and the abdication of professional responsibility

Believe it or not, there was once a time when Dr. Mehmet Oz didn’t bother me that much. At least, for all his flirting with woo, I never quite thought that he had completely gone over to the Dark Side. Although I probably knew deep down that I was fooling myself. Maybe it was because Dr. Oz is a surgeon–and not just a surgeon but a cardiac surgeon. After the enthusiastic embrace of pseudoscience by so many surgeons, and in particular Dr. Michael Egnor‘s embrace of “intelligent design” creationism and mind-brain dualism, maybe I didn’t want to believe that yet another surgeon had fallen for a different form of pseudoscience and unreason. It just goes to show that even skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine can be prone to wishful thinking. Then Dr. Oz’s unequivocal public embrace of reiki on his show, as well as his touting of “alternative therapies that really work” (hint: they don’t) removed any remaining cover that allowed me to delude myself into thinking that Dr. Oz wasn’t that bad. Without a doubt he is as bad as Deepak Chopra in many ways, although he probably hasn’t reached Joe Mercola territory yet.

Give him time, though.

After all, the Oprah effect is strong and, remember, reiki is nothing more than faith healing based on Eastern mysticism rather than Judeo-Christian religion. Unfortunately, Dr. Oz has become “America’s doctor.” Fortunately, people are starting to notice his promotion of a range of dubious therapies that range from just questionable to what can only be described as pure quackery (reiki, for instance). While much of what Dr. Oz promotes is actually science-based medicine, it is adulterated with pseudoscience, or, as I can’t resist saying, he “integrates” pseudoscience with science-based medicine, making him an excellent example of a practitioner of “integrative” medicine. Fortunately, journalists are starting to notice and ask some hard questions, journalists like Trine Tsouderos, who last Friday published an article in The Chicago Tribune entitled Questioning Dr. Oz. It’s about time someone publicly questioned Dr. Oz, in particularl how he seasons his mundane science-based recommendations with questionable recommendations and even downright pseudoscience.

For example:

Millions turn to him for advice, looking for an authority figure to make sense of the flood of medical information available online and in the media.

Much of the material Oz provides is solid, but some medical experts express reservations about his approach, saying Oz’s ventures also offer advice unsupported by science.

Oz has called the rotavirus vaccine “optional” — a risky view, according to experts. He tells people to examine the shape and sound of their bowel movements closely — a silly idea, specialists say. He invited a doctor to his TV show who has helped spread the idea that cancer can be cured with baking soda. On his Web site, another doctor endorses a group that promotes unproven autism treatments.

The reference to a doctor who has helped spread the idea that cancer can be cured by baking soda is a reference to the time that Dr. Oz invited that hater of science-based medicine, promoter of anti-vaccine beliefs and fawning interviewer of anti-vaccine god Andrew Wakefield, and promoter of Italian cancer quack Tullio Simoncini, the man who thinks that all cancer is caused by fungus and can be cured by baking soda. I’m talking, of course, about Joe Mercola, whose website competes with Mike Adams’ NaturalNews.com for the “distinction” of being the most quackery-infused website on the web aside from Whale.to. Truly, when Dr. Oz invited Mercola on his show, he “crossed the Woobicon,” so to speak, never to be acceptable as a trustworthy physician again, at least in my book.

A huge part of the problem appears to derive from an apparent belief on the part of Dr. Oz’s production team (and, presumably, him) that they must maintain an “open mind” and present “multiple perspectives.” So what we end up with on Dr. Oz’s TV show and website are “multiple perspectives” unfiltered by adequate science and reason, producing, in essence, a medical TV show and empire so open-minded that its collective brains have fallen out:

Oz declined to be interviewed, but his spokespeople say the doctor’s mission is to give his audience information from multiple perspectives. His “Ask Dr. Oz” feature offers answers not only from prestigious medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic but also from alternative medicine practitioner Deepak Chopra and from Dove, maker of skin care and beauty products.

“The purpose of the site is to provide users with as much information as possible and allow the users to differentiate between what they find helpful and what they do not,” Oz’s spokespeople wrote in response to questions.

But more information is not necessarily better, as not all perspectives are equal in medicine.

Which is precisely the message that I’ve repeated here on this blog until I’m blue in the face–metaphorically speaking, of course, given that a Plexiglass box full of multicolored blinking lights can’t really be blue in the face unless there is a surfeit of blue lights that can be turned on. Here’s another:

Science is not a democracy where people’s votes decide what is right, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Look at the data, look at science and make a decision based on science that has been published,” he said.

Not on Dr. Oz’s TV show and certainly not on his website. On a side note, Kim Stagliano at the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of autism has attacked Tsouderos once again, hilariously claiming that Dr. Offit is going after Dr. Oz because he “questioned” the vaccination schedule and admitted that his children did not get the H1N1 vaccine. And it’s true. Reading between the lines, I think that Dr. Oz has allowed his woo-loving reiki master of a wife dictate that his children not receive all the recommended vaccines. Worse, he seems to buy into some of the claims of the anti-vaccine movement about vaccines.

The amusing antics of Stagliano aside, as Tsouderos’ article describes, articles on Dr. Oz’s website rise and fall in popularity based on rankings by the website’s readers. Popular articles show up at the top of pages on various topics, while those garnering fewer votes don’t. But, as Dr. Offit points out, science is not a democracy. In Dr. Oz’s world, though, it apparently is. Indeed, incredibly, Dr. Oz’s producers describe his website as one that “answers the questions of health with multiple points of view and creates a collective IQ centralized in one place for people to learn and act.”

A “centralized IQ” is only as good as the information and reasoning behind the material that makes it up, and the quality of the information on Dr. Oz’s website is wildly uneven, ranging from scientifically acceptable to promoting quackery. For instance, if you search for the term reiki on Dr. Oz’s website, you’ll find credulous articles by Lisa Oz (Dr. Oz’s wife) saying things like this:

Sadly, modern medicine is still mired in its mechanistic/chemically based paradigm and fails to recognize the body as an energetic entity. But, many ancient healing traditions of the East are built on this principle and have utilized it to treat people for millennia. Healing systems, like acupuncture, reiki, therapeutic touch, and qigong all seek to redirect or facilitate the flow of energy through the body, thereby improving health.

I am a certified reiki master, which sounds like I scratch people with a garden tool at some S & M club, but actually just means that I have learned to focus energy in my own body to facilitate healing in others. I know it sounds wacky. Trust me, coming from a family of medical doctors, I was skeptical at first. But, after I went through the training and began using it on my family and saw the results, I became a believer. Now my kids beg me for it whenever they feel sick.

Maybe her kids simply want their mom’s attention and loving touch. After all, what kid doesn’t want their mom to pay attention to them when they’re sick?

There is also this example of credulous nonsense about reiki from, of all places, The Cleveland Clinic, which touts the benefits of reiki as the “channeling of life force energy to the recipient” in about the truest example of quackademic medicine there is out there. (If you don’t believe me, check out what the Clinic’s website says about reiki.) On a related note, Oz’s website also promotes another form of “energy healing” quackery, therapeutic touch, which is a form of quackery so easily debunked that even a 12-year-old can do it.

Yet there they are, reiki and therapeutic touch, all there on Dr. Oz’s website. But if that’s not enough, check out this bit by Dr. Oz’s coauthor Dr. Michael Roizen about prayer, which justifies quackery:

…we define life at the level of the cell. As long as the membrane maintains an energy gradient between the inside and outside world, our cells are alive. When you aggregate cells into organs and then put these in the right spot to make a human, you have life. That’s why we’re interested in adjusting energy in the body through such vehicles as acupuncture, homeopathy, and hard-to-explain methods like reiki and prayer. After all, everything that matters in life – like love – can’t always be measured with blood, machines, and complex calculations. They’re measured in the way you live.

This, remember, is the man who runs the “Wellness” Institute at The Cleveland Clinic. Of course, I did my residency at the Clinic’s rival less than a mile up Euclid Avenue; so I must admit a bit of satisfaction to see a rival so steeped in woo. Leaving that aside, it pains me to see quackademic medicine so entrenched in the Clinic–or any major academic medical center–precisely because credulous fools like Dr. Oz can hold them up as an authority to support their woo.

In the end, the story that Tsouderos paints of Oz is of a man who does promote a lot of science-based medicine but has mixed it with so much woo and even outright quackery like reiki that it becomes impossible for most people to identify which is which. Worse, in the search of ratings, Dr. Oz refuses to pass judgment on anything. In doing so, he abdicates one of the most important responsibilities of a physician: Synthesizing the medical data and differentiating for his patients (or viewers) treatments that are supported by science from those that are not. Viewers and readers don’t have the medical or scientific background to do that; that’s why they seek out Dr. Oz. By making the excuse that he is merely putting information out there and allowing his readers to decide what is useful to them, Dr. Oz is lazily and disingenuously divesting himself of any responsibility for the information that is on his website or the guests that he invites on his show. Add to that his promotion of quackery such as reiki and “energy healing” modalities and the dubious information about vaccines on his website and in his books, and “America’s doctor” has taken a flying leap down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience.