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Two critical takes on Dr. Oz’s medical advice

Dr. Mehmet Oz won a “Talk Show: Informative” Emmy Sunday for his popular 9-month-old television show.

Dr. Mehmet Oz won a “Talk Show: Informative” Emmy Sunday for his popular 9-month-old television show.

But is the medical information that he dispenses on that show — and in his other media ventures (a series of best-selling health books, columns in Time and Esquire, a blog, and a wide-ranging website) worthy of acclaim?

Steve Salerno, author of “Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made American Helpless,” and Chicago Tribune reporter Trine Tsouderos don’t think so. Both have written columns recently that take Dr. Oz, a cardiac surgeon and Oprah protégé, to task for peddling such foolishness as homeopathy and “cupping” along with scientifically solid medical treatments.

(Salerno has a bit of foolishness on his Shamblog as well. Under his bio he lists his astrological sign and zodiac year. I’m going to assume he’s being ironic.)

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Writes Salerno in the New York Daily News:

Oz’s demonstrable passion for the eccentric dates back to the mid-‘90s, when he spearheaded the Cardiac Complementary Care Center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and immediately set out to validate the energy-healing regimen known as therapeutic touch — an updated version of the Ancients’ “laying on of hands.” In Oz’s new operating-theater-of-the-absurd, a self-described “radical healer” was stationed at the head of the surgery table, her mission to report any changes she discerned in the patient’s energy as the operation progressed.
These days, Oz’s favorite form of energy enhancement is Reiki, a kind of spiritual massage. Its practitioners — notably including Oz’s wife, Lisa — claim to facilitate healing by strengthening or balancing energy “meridians.” (Quackwatch.org’s Dr. Stephen Barrett dismisses Reiki as “nonsense.”) In “You: Staying Young,” Oz and his co-author, Cleveland Clinic wellness specialist Dr. Michael Roizen, declared that such unseen energy fields permit “one part of the body to have an effect on another, even though there seems to be no clear chemical connection.”
In the land of Oz, you see, chemistry sometimes takes a back seat to caprice.

The laying on of hands and using Reiki to “rebalance energy” may be a waste of time and money, but I can’t see them putting anybody’s life in danger — unless they’re used in place of effective conventional medicines. (And, yes, I realize — and have written about it here often — that many conventional medical treatments are scientifically unproven shams as well.)

But Dr. Oz’s proclivity for treating all perspectives as being equal in medicine — and then letting the health consumer “differentiate between what they find helpful and what they do not” (as an Oz spokesperson told Tsouderos) — can be dangerous. 

Writes Tsouderos:

In a guide called “You: Having a Baby,” Oz and his co-author express concern about whether rotavirus vaccines cause a rare intestinal complication called intussusception. The book suggests “you opt out of this one until more data are available — unless your child is in day care or other high-risk circumstances.”
But the question of whether the rotavirus vaccines cause intussusception has been settled, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, which all recommend the vaccines. Data from millions of doses in the U.S. have not shown a link.
Rotavirus infections, which cause vomiting and severe diarrhea and can be fatal, hospitalized tens of thousands of children annually in the U.S. before vaccines were available, according to the CDC.

But Oz is not “above stumping for the medical mainstream when it suits his purposes,” writes Salerno:

He was an early advocate for RealAge, an online service — founded by his writing partner, Roizen — that purports to help consumers reconcile their chronological and medical ages. Whether the test can actually do that in some medically valid way is debatable. But the test has proved effective at identifying prospects for a targeted marketing campaign on the part of the drug firms who underwrite the enterprise. Between 1999 and 2009, an estimated 27 million consumers took the quiz. Those who signed on as RealAge “members” would then begin receiving e-mails from drug makers offering the pharmacological answers to the illnesses for which those members were at risk, based on their test results.

“Still,” adds Salerno, “Oz seems most comfortable when he’s nudging his 3 million daily viewers toward the Eastern horizon. … But then, what else would you expect from a man who told one New Age radio interviewer, ‘When you move past a physical understanding of reality … you begin to realize that we live in a world where 99% is pretend and 1% is real.’ Sounds like something the Wizard himself might say, if he had a talk show.”

(Hat tip: Health News Review.)