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One Harvard Researcher's Surreal 'Dr. Oz Show' Experience

This article is more than 8 years old.

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.

This program aired on February 9, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.