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Watching Your Health

Opinion | March 25, 2013

The notion of celebrity has transcended movie stars and musicians. Celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, fashion models such as Heidi Klum, and entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban have spearheaded immensely successful programs that have created a whole new sector of alternative programming in television for networks to perpetually expand.

It is easy to see that these shows, and their accompanying celebrity experts, are forms and figures of entertainment—as the word “celebrity” would traditionally imply. Celebrity doctors, on the other hand, are a different story.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the daytime talk show The Dr. Oz Show, is a highly accomplished and qualified surgeon with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a joint MBA and MD degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a professor at Columbia University and the director of the Cardiovascular Institute and Integrative Medicine Program at the esteemed New York-Presbyterian Hospital, performing approximately 250 operations each year. Deemed “America’s doctor” by Oprah Winfrey, Oz discusses medical issues from obesity to cancer and provides tips on improving personal health, from improving your diet to increasing the number of orgasms you have each year.

I have no doubt that Oz is a highly effective and capable doctor in the operating room, and for certain segments of his program, he seems to be exactly that. One of Oz’s favorite topics of discussion is heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States according to the Center for Disease Control. Dr. Oz offers beneficial tips for a decidedly relevant problem that can help transform an unhealthy lifestyle, reshaping poor eating habits, exercise, and sleep.

But other aspects of The Dr. Oz Show are emblematic of why these celebrity medical shows may do more harm than good. The program attracts almost four million viewers a day, which makes it one of the most popular daytime programs currently on the air. This popularity has made Dr. Oz, a celebrity, one with screaming fans attending every taping, a feat that used to be reserved exclusively for George Clooney or Justin Timberlake. He is a very public voice that people trust and rely on.

Oz claims that his program’s sole objective is to present the viewers with options for a healthier way of life, not to make decisions for them. While this may indeed be his intention, the reality is that people listen to what he says on the air and he has a dangerous inclination to be hyperbolic. Adjectives like “miraculous” or “revolutionary” are normally reserved for scams in the medical community, but the fact that Oz’s platform is television allows him to use these words with no confines whatsoever. The entertainment industry doesn’t do normal; it craves superlatives and exaggeration.

Dr. Oz also has a tendency to prominently feature “alternative medicine” on his program. The problem with the nature of “alternative medicine” is that it is not scientifically sound and lacks concrete evidence. For example, Doctor Oz gave a glowing review of the supplement raspberry ketones, and claimed that it burns fat with unprecedented ease. While this endorsement precipitated a buying frenzy across America, it turned out that studies that served as the basis for Oz’s claims were done on laboratory rats, not humans.

Green coffee beans, supplements that supposedly were just as effective as raspberry ketones in stimulating weight loss, also received major publicity through a spot on the program. However, the study cited by Oz backing these claims turned out to be funded by Applied Food Sciences, a company that makes these same green coffee bean supplements. Such a glaring conflict of interest would be a deal breaker in the scientific community, but not in the entertainment industry. Networks place a premium on marketability, and nothing drives ratings like controversy.

The fact that Oz has become “America’s doctor” has alarming implications. He is a decorated doctor and a calming presence in a landscape filled with obnoxious personalities, so naturally people perceive his program to be different. It comes off as professional. But while this may be true to some degree, it is still a show on television that depends on ratings for survival. Oz has been portrayed as an authority on anything related to health, and deservedly so given his career accomplishments. Nonetheless he and all other doctors on television have an obligation to constantly ensure that everything they put on the air is accurate, constructive, and not corrupted by bias and embellishment.