COMMENTARY

Physician Hyping Weight Loss Products: Readers 'Weigh' In

Brandon Cohen

Disclosures

July 18, 2014

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the wildly successful television personality, has recently come under public scrutiny for using his syndicated daytime program, The Dr. Oz Show, and his medical expertise as a cardiothoracic surgeon to promote the benefits of dubious products. Last month, he faced prickly questions at a Senate subcommittee hearing on dietary supplements. In particular, he was grilled for his support of several weight loss aids that he hyped with words like "miracle" and "magic bullet."

In a recent all-physician discussion on Medscape Connect, the character and conduct of one of America's best known physicians was up for debate.

The majority of responding doctors objected strongly to the actions of Dr. Oz. "Oz is an embarrassment to the medical profession," an internist simply declared.

"He is a quack, peddling snake oil," jeered another physician.

"Is Dr. Oz a sellout? Is the Pope Catholic?" questioned an emergency department physician. "We all know he is smart enough to know he's spouting false claims and advice. The next question is why. It's about time somebody investigated."

"I do believe we already know the answer: $$$$," a pediatrician responded quickly.

"Yes, we know he does it for dollars. But a physician selling a false treatment purely for financial benefit runs into problems. We have higher standards to maintain," replied the ER doctor.

A cynical surgeon, however, shrugged off all the hoopla: "Is that not what the country is all about? The TV ads, how many of them are real?"

Another surgeon agreed and offered a deeper character study, calling on information gleaned from the surgery grapevine:

Oz was reputed as a very skilled cardiac surgeon by colleagues who rotated with him, making difficult procedures seem easy when compared to others. I never worked with him or met him but always felt that what they were describing was an excellent self-promoter who made you see what he wanted you to see. That was before he was discovered by Oprah, and the discovery confirmed it. Oz turned his excellent salesmanship into making money, the ultimate American thing, even if his description of effectiveness is a stretch.

Many physicians, however, were heartened by the words of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill who scolded Dr. Oz during the subcommittee hearing[1]:

The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the 3 products that you called miracles... And when you call a product a miracle and it's something that you can buy and it's something that gives people false hope, I just don't understand why you need to go there.

A pediatrician sounded somewhat gleeful that Dr. Oz had been taken to task:

He does cross the line way too often, so it's great to see someone rein him in when it's appropriate... Some of my family worship him and often quote him to me, which brings bile up. They are always amazed when I criticize something he has said.

Other doctors also reported their consternation at the powerful effect that Dr. Oz has on the general public. An internist, using the jargon of advertising, described the products a recent patient had brought into the office: "Garcinia cambogia, hoodia love, green coffee extract: all only $30 for 7 bottles! Bigger savings when buying more than a week at a time."

But a neurologist actually saw something commendable in the fact that Dr. Oz stood and took an official reproach:

I have to give him credit, despite being a narcissist, to voluntarily sit in front of the Congressional subcommittee as part of witness panel #1 and be subjected to grilling. It is my understanding that other doctors who promote products and make similar claims had turned down requests to be witnesses.

A surgeon viewed Oz as essentially harmless:

As for my opinion of him? Charlatan, but he is not a physician, he's an entertainer... He's free to make a buck however he can, but when patients ask me about something he's said or recommended, I simply recommend that they quit watching him (and TV altogether) and go get some exercise.

And another surgeon even had praise for Dr. Oz and saw no wrong in his popular success:

As far as I'm concerned, Oz has paid his dues and, as a cardiothoracic surgeon, has probably been involved directly in saving many lives. But everyone has a problem with docs making money. I think as long as Oz is not making outrageous claims about the health benefits of what he's endorsing, I have no problem. If he is making medical claims, then those products should come under the scrutiny of the FDA and be forced into that long trial process or drop the claims.

But several colleagues believed that Oz has, in fact, crossed the line. In particular, a treatment that Oz flouted frequently on his show known as the Knapsack Heated Rice Footsie, which involved pouring warm rice in socks to combat insomnia, was widely ridiculed.

The last word goes to an internist who brought the discussion down to earth by writing, "If you think Dr. Oz gives a hoot what any of us think, you're crazy!"

The full discussion of this topic is available online. Please note that this is open to physicians only.

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