One Harvard Researcher’s Surreal ‘Dr. Oz Show’ Experience

Last week, we linked to a skeptical New Yorker article about what could be called “The Dr. Oz Problem.” As The New Yorker puts it, much of what Dr. Mehmet Oz, otherwise known as “America’s Doctor,” propagates is sound medical science. But…

“…That is why the rest of what he does is so hard to understand. Oz is an experienced surgeon, yet almost daily he employs words that serious scientists shun, like ‘startling, ‘breakthrough,’ ‘radical,’ ‘revolutionary,’ and ‘miracle.’ There are miracle drinks and miracle meal plans and miracles to stop aging and miracles to fight fat…

In each of those instances, and in many others, Oz has been criticized by scientists for relying on flimsy or incomplete data, distorting the results, and wielding his vast influence in ways that threaten the health of anyone who watches the show.”

Dr. Pieter Cohen (Courtesy)

Dr. Pieter Cohen (Courtesy)

We sent a shout-out to our readers, asking if anyone had encountered health-care problems that stemmed from Dr. Oz’s more dubious reports, and one response — or rather, one surreal story — came in from Dr. Pieter Cohen, a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He appeared on a 2011 “Dr. Oz” show that you can watch here, if you don’t mind the ads.

You can listen to him tell the cautionary tale in the 10-minute audio file above by clicking on the play button, but here are some highlights. First, an advisory: Dr. Cohen emphasizes that he has the utmost respect for Dr. Oz as a brilliant surgeon. “This is in no way an indictment of his clinical abilities, which are amazing,” he says, “so it remains a mystery why the show is veering off in the direction it is.”

Dr. Cohen begins with some fascinating history of the “rainbow” diet pill fad of decades past, and the many doctors who were willing to prescribe them despite the risk and lack of solid evidence of benefit.

Now to more recent history: Dr Cohen was invited onto the Dr. Oz show to discuss the “hCG diet,” a crash diet aided by shots of the pregnancy hormone hCG. He assumed that he would be partnering with Dr. Oz “to help Americans realizes that this is another fad and potentially dangerous,” he says. Because in fact, there have been “a dozen randomized controlled trials to show that it doesn’t work, it’s no different than injecting salt water. The risk issues come down to the very restrictive diet” of only 500 calories a day, which can cause gallstones and other problems.

But no….

“I had a sense that things might not be going as planned when I got off my Amtrak train from Boston and walked over to the studio, and I saw the stretch Hummer with ‘Dr. Emma’ and over a dozen of her patients popping out. (‘Dr. Emma’ was the HCG doctor who Mehmet had invited to be on the show.) So when she popped out with all her slim patients, I thought the show might be going in a different direction.

And sure enough, I would find myself, not so long afterward, sitting on stage — and actually, in a sad sort of way, it was a fascinating experience, because there I was, watching a new fad be born. I had studied the ‘rainbow diet pill,’ how it had really taken off, and here I was watching as this show — though it did touch on some potential side effects — ended up endorsing the hCG diet, with Dr. Oz saying that if you can find a doctor like Dr. Emma, who does these diets, it’s worth a try.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz (David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Mehmet Oz (David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

So I would imagine, I said, for an academic who believes in evidence-based medicine, this was a totally surreal nightmare.

It was certainly a fascinating experience, to be right there in the midst of this. But yes, it’s unfortunate because we were going back-to-back just like the New Yorker article recently described. Dr. Oz’s shows are so interesting in that they’re back to back: some absolutely perfectly pitched with excellent advice and evidence, and then the next one makes absolutely no sense. And I do agree that this is fundamentally doing a disservice to the viewers, because how can you distinguish what’s evidence based and what’s not?

So it was a switcheroo: You expected sensible medical advice and instead found yourself party to a show that did quite the opposite. What do you make of it?

I’m left with the same question that you’ve asked, which is: Is it worthwhile – because some of the shows are giving good advice — or is really all of that good advice lost now that so many of the shows are not based on solid evidence or giving useful information to viewers? So it’s really an open question whether or not The Oz Show is doing more harm than good.

Further reading: Dr. Cohen negotiated with The Dr. Oz Show to post this hCG diet fact-vs.-fiction article on the Web after his show. However, he notes sadly, most of the comments following his post tout the hCG diet.

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  • Gina Pera

    That was an interesting article about Dr. Oz. Most revealing to me was how much his wife influences his new career. This is a woman who is anti-vaccine for her own children, yet as the article made clear. Dr. Oz is MISTER Oz at home.”

    I appreciate that he is trying to reach the American people where they live and that in many ways he has tried to bridge the gap between the “stove-pipe-thinking” endemic to mainstream medical specialists and the Dr. Mercolas of the Internet. But when it comes to diets like this and other cockamamie schemes, I’m reminded that it’s the network who directs the content (and maybe Lisa Oz), not best medical practices.

    At least Oz is mostly better than “Dr.” Phil McGraw.

  • Jay Walker

    If it is doing any harm, then it’s not worth it.

  • Pdiff

    Ligia Buzan: He may have. The Dr. Oz show has been known to edit out contrary opinions or to limit time for those that have them. It is not necessarily a balanced opportunity. Many scientists now refuse to go on his show because of this (see for example a Google of Pamala Ronald and Dr Oz).

  • Emily Barrett Antul

    I need a financial backer:
    I’d like to start up a “weight loss clinic” for a diet called the “what you don’t know will help you” diet. I propose we have a nutritionist, personal trainer and RN on the staff. We will inject the sheep with sterile saline solution, tell them it’s the next big wonder drug, could say it’s “like hCG, but better” or whatever… marketing is easy… and then give them a healthy menu and exercise regimen, have them check in for their weekly weigh-ins and shots. Seriously, we’d make a killing. And people would get healthier. It’s a win-win. At least until we get a better educational system in this country with a higher level of scientific literacy and people realize what we’re doing.

  • jmh104

    I want to know why we’re taking all medical-advice from a cardiothoracic surgeon. I do not expect my ENT doctor to give me advice about my pregnancy. Is he overstepping his bound of specialty?

    • Gina Pera

      Exactly. His training is as a proceduralist, not a scientist.

  • Ligia Buzan

    Why did not Dr. Cohen voice his concerns during the show?

    • Suncho

      He did. Did you watch the video? This is a direct quote:

      “We do have excellent data about this. Actually, there’s been 14 randomized controlled trials randomizing over 600 patients to either injection or salt-water placebo. Every single study has been negative. No difference in weight loss or perception in the two groups.”

  • Ryan Hopkins

    It’s because this TV personality can be bought just like anyone else. IMO he’s actually worse than a Kardashian, because he was successful for a legitimate reason before he sold out to become famous.

  • go2goal

    It’s mostly about the sugar (glucose and fructose). Stop eating today’s wheat and soy and minimize your intake of sugar….and eat healthy fats, protein, and lots and lots of plants. Most fruits are fine….but be careful how much of the high sugar fruits you consume. Don’t drink sugary drinks…at all….that includes fruit juices which are packed with SUGAR! Cut back on none-fermented dairy…..and don’t eat that low fat or none fat dairy crap (it’s processed and it’s all carbohydrates). Whole fat unprocessed yogurt or kefir….read the labels. If it’s dairy and high in carbs…it means it’s high in lactose (SUGAR !). Whole fat yogurt….the sugar has been mostly fermented away….no more lactose…pro-biotics.

    All the low fat and processed foods are crap….that is what’s killing us!

  • Lou

    The contradiction is easy to understand when you realize that the good Dr. is a media personality whose producer, and production staff, actually call the shots for what happens on any given show. Its like a movie ” based on a real story” – lots of dramatic filler, not much of what actually transpired – it was recast for good cinema or TV.

  • isarose

    As a nutritionist using a lot of functional medicine, I appreciate a lot of alternative ways to combat certain conditions. Then Dr Oz starts with the raspberry ketones and green coffee bean extract, and I get the same feeling – why is he doing this? My colleagues and I find no help with these products.

    • ANNA

      Dr Oz is pushing these products because: 1. He’s paid to. 2. ‘Miracle, magical and instantaneous’ will always succeed with a scientifically illiterate public. 3. Even if the public was better educated, there’s an element to human nature that just WANTS to believe in miracles, magic and instant results without any effort. Who doesn’t want to have their cake and eat it too?

    • Sandy

      When it comes to nutritional products, whether general nutrition or weight control, my choice is to go with a company who’s products have been proven scientifically to improve health more than other vitamins by a comparative study done by UC Berkeley. There are no fad or kook products and they publish in peer reviewed journals. Yes, there are companies that do it right and can guarantee results.