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Early last week, Dr. Mehmet Oz testified on the accountability of the products he promotes on his show, admitting they do not hold up to "scientific muster." The hearing, held before the Senate subcommittee of Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, was dealing with the regulation of dietary supplements -- a subject deserving of an entire dissertation (or, in lieu of that, this 16 minute segment of “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver). The crux of the issue, as it relates to Oz, is why we grant him so much trust in the first place. Is it because he is charming and bestowed with the ears and bone structure of an elvish god? Or is the mere fact that he happens to be a doctor on television enough to convince us of his “scientific muster,” as it were? Doctors ought to be trustworthy, but not in the realm of entertainment. The fact is that "The Dr. Oz Show" is, above all else, a show, and health has never been the primary concern of anything seen on television.
Let's start by unpacking Oz specifically. Testifying before Congress placed Oz’s reputation in doubt, but questioning the science behind his show is nothing new. In a New Yorker profile published last year, one of his colleagues, Eric Rose, said he would not send a patient to see Oz, and identified him as less a doctor than an entertainer. “[T]hat is a different job,” he said, “In medicine, your baseline need has to be for a level of evidence that can lead to your conclusions.”
That idea is pretty much the essence of the problem with health television in general. Being an entertainer and being a doctor are different jobs that are impossible to reconcile. We might even say that in terms of exemplifying each, Oz is well intentioned. Faced with Congress as his audience, he emphasized that he shares the products he promotes on the show with his family (although, in the aforementioned New Yorker profile, he said he did not use them himself). "My job, I feel, on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience when they don't think they have hope and they don't think they can make it happen," he said during the congressional hearing. "It jump-starts you. It gives you the confidence to keep going."
Yet, the issue remains with the scientific rigor of his vetting process. When your success requires audience interest, the objective is always tied to that goal. The effect of this in the realm of health shows can range from sensationalism to less fuzzy ethical realms. The Daily Beast points to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who frequently promotes Gardasil without fully disclosing that its parent company “has a stake in CNN by way of Gupta’s own ‘AccentHealth,’ which he co-hosts.” Another problematic example is “The Biggest Loser.” Despite the fact that its methods have long since been questioned as detrimental, the show continues on to its 14th season, profiting hugely (estimated at $100 million annually in 2009) from both the show and its related products.
Clearly, there’s a wide spectrum of potential "unhealthiness" at play here. What’s left unquestioned is the effect these shows have on their audience. People trust doctors. Heck, people trust nutritionists and trainers, never mind those folks that have attached a distinguished honorific to their name. When the very different jobs of health professional and entertainer are combined, the element of authority is conflated with celebrity. A show's end game may be to profit from untested products or provide accessible healthy solutions to the public at large. The unfortunate truth is that they can't find a forum to survive doing either, unless they achieve the primary goal of providing entertainment value. So, sure, it feels slightly shocking to hear Dr. Oz contradict any number of "miracles" he's promised his audience in the past, but the reality is that we should only trust doctors whose office hours are not confined to the small screen.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca