After five years and 55 episodes, my time as a regular guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show comes to an end this Tuesday, May 12. When I walked onto the stage for this episode, it was the first time in my five years on the show that I had absolutely no idea what awaited me - no show rundown, no script and no pre-interviews. Even though the producers often share even the most minute details when we're doing a show, this time their lips were sealed.
The episode is called "The Best of Dr. Oz," but in all reality, the hour is about people who've found the best in themselves. During the taping, I was moved and flattered by a huge wall full of faces, all of whom reported that their lives were somehow saved by knowledge gained through the show. In fact, these wonderful individuals had altered the course of their own lives because they acted on information that we happened to provide on the "Oprah" show. I have spent a solid chunk of my adult life trying to concoct the "secret sauce" that takes people from knowing basic facts about their health to obtaining a deeper awareness of why this information matters and taking action to improve their well-being. This is the place where motivation lies, deeply hidden in our psyche.
I embarked on this journey when Oprah and her team saw some promise in a series of shows my wife Lisa and I created for the Discovery Health Channel entitled "Second Opinion" in 2003. In fact, Oprah was my first guest on the program. At the time, I was completely consumed with sharing the medical school experience that converts laymen into doctors. After all, if dunking someone in health information makes him/her an expert in school, why wouldn't it work elsewhere? But something happened along the way that convinced me that I had this all wrong.
Like most doctors, the extent of my training in human behavior was somewhat limited. If we felt our patients needed to behave in a particular way - say losing weight - our job was to educate them on the perils of obesity. Our reasoning was simple: once understood, the cold, hard facts would be sufficient incentive for any rational human to change their behavior. And, if that didn't work, we dug our heels in and repackaged the facts to further underscore the urgent need for action. This tactic became affectionately known as a "wake up call."
What most doctors hadn't counted on was that their wake up calls would be blocked by Caller ID. Even when we made a connection, our call was quickly put on a kind of permanent hold. As physicians, our knee-jerk reaction was 'don't they get it?', or 'how can they ignore the facts?'
My wake up call, the one I finally answered, was to realize that information, in the traditional sense, is not the essential prerequisite for action. The processing of information is simply too slow to be useful. A real creature in a real-world environment does not have the luxury of analysis. Instead, we rely on emotion and feelings to guide action. People often form a judgment about something by subconsciously asking "How do I feel about this?"
So, as I turned those Discovery programs into our best-selling "YOU: The Owner's Manual" book series with my writing partner, Cleveland Clinic Foundation's Dr. Michael Roizen, we saw how abstract health information, without an emotional connection, paralyzes many readers. Sour and dire "gloom and doom" information doesn't exactly bring you back begging for more. Rather, actions are only reinforced if they stimulate the dopamine jackpot of the brain. This is what love, drugs and other addictions do so perfectly, so we return for more without urging (and sometimes, despite great risk). So the real question we needed to ask the audience is "How does this information make you feel?" And if 80% of change is emotional, then connecting is more important than informing. Many physicians, including myself, sometimes forget this lesson as we innocently bludgeon doctor-patient relationships.
This is where the Oprah show magic boosted us into the motivational orbit viewers need. We aimed for the transformation trifecta: tell folks what to do for their health (which is what most health advisors and the news does), explain the science so they really understand the advice, and convince them why it should matter to them. For example, we did shows on cigarette addictions and explained that they are bad for you - it's no surprise that didn't turn many heads. Then comes the step where most docs, nurses, and loved ones insult the smoker for not quitting. But this only further diminishes the already low esteem of someone upset with himself for still smoking in the first place. Instead, Oprah offered the insight that we were doing the show because we care about you. And all we want is for you to love yourself as much as we do.
In fact, what I learned most poignantly on the Oprah show was that I did not need to fix everything, especially difficult for a doctor. What many people really crave is to be heard and validated. Then we can disrupt their beliefs as we break their patterns on our way to helping out. Many of the guests knew the path better than me. Their health hardships had cracked them open so they were able to receive inspiration and insights which they kindly shared with us. These wonderful people like Randy Pausch, Michael J. Fox, Montel Williams and hundreds more whose names you would not recognize emphasized that we're judged by how we take care of each other. That's the most important message I will carry into "The Dr. Oz Show" which starts on Monday, September 14. It's the lesson that would make Professor Winfrey proudest as she graduates another student.
Dr. Oz's farewell appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" airs Tuesday. Check your local listings for time and channel.