Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 30, 2015

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Dr Mehmet Oz is in trouble again. He was accused by 10 physicians in a letter of promoting quackery. They demanded that Columbia University Medical Center fire Dr Oz. Now, I can say with some authority that as "America's Doctor"—the person who, for many Americans, is the voice of medicine—he is not going to be fired. His show is not going to end. That isn't going to happen.

Dr Oz has evoked this response from these 10 physicians because he continues to push the border of legitimacy on his shows with respect to touting things for which there isn't much evidence. And that is a problem. Many doctors tell me that when Dr Oz endorses something—green coffee beans, some neti pot to cure the common cold—whatever it is, they are going to be asked about it, and their patients run out and buy it. He has enormous power when it comes to the platform he has built. And let's face it: He is an effective communicator. His show is fun to watch. I understand why the American people are paying attention to Dr Oz.

But with that power comes responsibility. I know it's tough for him week after week to figure out what to put on the show when basic health advice could probably be done over the course of a single show in 2 hours. Exercise more, eat better, wear a helmet, make sure you drive safely, wear your seat belt—all the common safety tips and things that diminish health risk. It wouldn't make for a very interesting series of shows because you are repeating the same advice many times.

One problem he has is that he is fishing to keep the eyeballs attached to the show, and that is why we see the psychic healers, the psychic surgeons, the people who talk to the dead, and the people who endorse diet regimens, saying, "Look at the testimonies." We even see a bit of the antivaccine message. All of this fuels people paying attention to the show.

It's a fine line, but he has to walk it more closely. You don't want people to believe that they can lose weight by magic beans. We don't want people thinking that people can perform surgery (on those who really need surgery) through therapeutic touch or mind control over their bodies. We don't want people going around believing that there are cures for viruses and bacteria in natural diets that substitute for what vaccines or antibiotics can do.

Dr Oz can be exciting. He can explore the alternative. He can explore the complementary, but he should be telling his audience, "Look, there is no evidence for this; these are just ideas that have been around for a long time. They're not proven." He has to make it clear where the line is between evidence-based claims and fantasy, hype, and people touting the latest supplement so that they can continue to let the $34 billion supplement industry thrive.

So, Dr Oz, I say keep your job, keep your platform, and keep communicating, but let's rein in the message. Let's try to make it more mainstream. Let's get more creative in presenting facts about what we know promotes health and not always dip into that grab-bag of fairy dust that is sometimes so tempting.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.


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