On June 17, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the syndicated medical affairs talk show host, appeared before a U.S. Senate panel for questioning about his promotion of non-evidence based medicines. The panel accused the doctor of touting unproven products as “miracle” cures and instilling his audience with false hopes. While I never enjoy watching someone squirm on a hot seat, I must admit I felt a bit of satisfaction with Oz’s defensive performance at the hearing.
I have nothing against Dr. Oz personally – he’s a Harvard-educated cardiac surgeon, appears to be a very nice guy and he connects well with people. Oz informs his viewers about health issues that might not otherwise enter the public discourse. That’s a good thing, right?
Well it would be, if it weren’t for the medium in which he works. Unlike most scientific T.V. programming, daytime talk demands facile answers to complex problems – something Dr. Oz yields to when providing wellness information on his show. It also favours sensationalism – witness the “miracle” cures he supports. Another major hallmark of the daytime talk show format is its mission to provide viewers with self-empowerment.
The internet has taught many that they are better able than ever before to manage their own health problems. The dark flip-side to this revolution is the online spread of misinformation and conspiracy. A 2014 survey, for example, found one-third of Americans believe a cure for cancer exists but is actively suppressed. The result is a wide skepticism of the medical establishment, and many consequently aspire to bypass it entirely and take control of their own health. Dr. Oz was surely aware of this environment, all he needed to do to capitalize was offer some alternative…
Enter the natural health products industry, with which Dr. Oz has struck up a mutually beneficial relationship.* Because pharma companies are regarded by many as predominantly profit-hungry, it follows that sellers of natural health products are viewed as modest and trustworthy partners in wellness. Multinational drug companies, so the narrative goes, don’t want you to know about the natural health’s more traditional remedies.
Out of step with this perception, however, are the lucrative earnings garnered by the natural health industry. A decade ago in Canada, it was worth $2.9 billion (more recent data is not available to me, but I presume business has grown considerably since). By comparison, Canadian prescription drug costs were $23 billion in 2013. When one accounts for the vastly higher burdens placed upon pharma companies (expensive R&D plus high costs associated with compliance in a strict regulatory environment), I would say the playing field for both industries is about level. So much for natural health’s “underdog” positioning.
But Dr. Oz has been instrumental in feeding the narrative against mainstream medicine by putting his well-credentialed weight behind products for which there is little to no evidence of efficacy. In his testimony at last week’s Senate hearing, Dr. Oz said of natural supplements’ therapeutic claims, “I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.” With that statement he finally finds common ground with the medical establishment.
What the public needs to do is weigh the negative image imposed on modern medicine against its overwhelmingly positive track record. No message from the natural health industry or its advocates, like Dr. Oz, could reasonably tarnish that. It is the scientific community’s responsibility to find a way to get this message out, and it is the public’s responsibility to listen and form opinions rationally.
* I would like to be emphatic: Dr. Oz does not “officially” endorse natural health products or take financial gain from their sale; he just promotes their use on his show.