Who is most responsible for false natural health claims? Dr. Oz, industry or the public?

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.

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Sadly quick to forget good fortune

We’re often reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which luck plays a part in our achievements.  It’s common to overlook how we might simply have been at the right place at the right time when opportunity arose.  Or, we may have had the especially good fortune to cross paths with someone who was willing to take a chance on our potential and help us succeed.  For young people in Ontario today, benefactors like these are very rare and increasing numbers of 15- to 24-year-olds are left out of the job market as a result.  We are experiencing the start of a youth unemployment crisis that is being felt more acutely in Ontario than almost anywhere else in Canada.

This was the main message of the Ready, Aim, HIRE!  initiative, whose launch event I attended on June 4.  The Centennial College student team behind it is spreading the message about inter-generational employment disparity through compelling storytelling.  Their web site contains video profiles of several young people who recount how they landed their first jobs.  They reveal  frustrations and triumphs and the moral is clear: young people are articulate, willing and able – they just need someone to give them a chance.  Visitors to the page are in turn urged to dig into their pasts and share their own personal stories of first jobs for others to read or view.

At the event itself I was particularly struck by the story of a young audience member who spoke about having no mentors or positive role models as he grew up.  Even though I sometimes struggle to think of people in my life who I designate “mentor,” I certainly have no trouble thinking of several inspirational figures both inside and outside my family who provided nothing but encouragement to me throughout my life.  I couldn’t imagine going through my formative years without that level of support; Ready, Aim, HIRE! opened my eyes to the reality that not everyone enjoys the same privilege I do.

rah panel

Ready, Aim, HIRE! speaker panel from left to right: Antoinette Sarpong, Louroz Mercader, Peter Tolias, Sean Gobey and Sevaun Palvetzian.  (Photo courtesy of Joseph Mancuso)

Which brings me to the story of my own first “real” job.  During the event I couldn’t help but reflect and recognize that there was indeed a “difference maker” who opted to take a chance on me at the start of my career.  In the late 1990s I was a recent university graduate with an unremarkable resume and a desire to work in the pharmaceutical industry.  Back then my daily job search entailed combing through a business directory to find names of pharma company hiring managers; my hope was to find one who would be willing to let me in.  It was extremely hard to get anyone to take my calls, let alone give me the time of day for a meeting.  The barrier to entry in the field felt extremely high, so much so that I soon found myself reaching the “Zs” in my trusty directory.  Listed there was an as-yet unfamiliar company – Zeneca Pharma – whose only available contact name was that of the president, Mike Henry.

Despite the absurdity of an undergrad writing to the president of a multinational, I had become so frustrated by that point I just thought, “dammit I’ve got nothing to lose,” so I wrote to Mr. Henry.  I told him of my interest in his company and asked if he could meet with me for 30 minutes to discuss employment opportunities.  When I followed up by phone a week later, to my surprise he not only took my call, he actually remembered who I was.  “Oh, you’re the guy from Western, right?”  I forget how I replied, I think I was in shock.  After a few minutes of chit-chat (again, I blacked out, I can’t remember what we discussed), Mr. Henry was kind enough to offer to arrange a meeting for me with Zeneca’s human resources director, who would be awaiting my call.  I duly had that meeting and before the day was out I held a contract position with the company.

I remember those feelings of frustration during my first job search.  The cruel catch-22 in which seekers can’t gain work experience because employers only consider candidates with years under their belts, yet offer few learning opportunities in return.  It was an extremely difficult and frustrating time and Ready, Aim, HIRE! helped me reconnect with those tough times and gain empathy for the youth of today.  Now that I am many years down my career path I’m surprised at how much those memories of discouragement became forgotten.  I now recognize the lucky break I had with my fortuitous encounter with Mr. Henry.  It demonstrates clearly to me that when people in positions of seniority give younger people just a little chance, they have the ability to transform a life.

True Colours: All you needed to do was ask

I’ve been around the block a few times and have taken in my share of personality assessments over the years for various reasons (all legit I promise).  The experience has its own brand of lukewarm enjoyment, not unlike that of watching a rerun of a very familiar old movie.  The process of reacquainting with the plot is mildly pleasant but there is almost zero suspense – the ending was a foregone conclusion from the get-go.  I usually do not come out of either experience much the wiser and instead am left with the sense that I merely reaffirmed something I already knew.

Such was the case with the True Colours personality inventory conducted a couple of weeks ago in our CCPR Project Management class.  According to iLearn2, the inventory’s creators, all people can be roughly broken down into four basic personality types: emotional and easy-going (blue), organized and punctual (gold), rational and pragmatic (green) or impulsive and outgoing (orange).  The True Colours system does not claim that anyone need necessarily fit into just one category of course; instead we are “rainbows” of all four groups, each exhibiting his or her own unique blend of all traits.

It turns out I am a green, with strong gold and blue undertones and a dim glow of orange in the background.  In English that means I’m a deep-thinking loner who is often critical of things (processes especially), but at the same time value the importance of organization.  It also means that once you get to know me you’ll find that inside I’ve got a deep emotional well and tend to be pretty easy-going most of the time.  I usually keep my wild side under wraps, but it’s there.

warhol chimp

Thing is, I already knew all of that stuff.  All anyone had to do was come up to me and ask and I could have told them the same.  I’m sure this is true for pretty much everyone else in my class as well.  Now this is all harmless enough – after all, the True Colours program does instruct us all to embrace our “inner rainbows” and draw from all facets of our personalities.  Unfortunately I found in practice the opposite tended to occur: instead of giving me pause to focus on aspects of myself that were less developed, I instead resigned myself to dwell on what the assessment said my dominant trait was.  For instance, if I’d been asked that day to get involved in a project requiring a high level of organization, I would have been more likely to tell myself, “I’d better not volunteer, after all I’m a green.”  Of course, I know this isn’t true and I’m fully capable of being a great organizer, but all the same that is honestly the lens through which I saw myself for a couple of days afterward.

The assessment had a similar effect on other people in my class as well; one week after doing the exercise we were divided into groups according to our respective dominant colours.  This further strengthened the overly simplified silos that True Colours placed us in.  That experience regrettably makes me see, even to this day, other people in my class as just a (figurative) colour.  I can’t help it now – whenever I see (for example) Meaghan Sweiger I think, “aw shucks, she is such a blue,” without considering all of the other valuable qualities she brings to a group or organization.  The truth of the matter is that Meghan is just as likely to be a capable organizer or deep thinker as the next person – she just happens to be have a warm and affable personality on top of that, too.

Having said all that, though, I can appreciate why it is that CCPR chose to have us go through the True Colours exercise.  It dovetailed directly with the notion of segmentation that is currently a prominent theme in our business classes.  It also underscored the importance for communicators to understand their audiences when delivering messages.  Perhaps most directly, though, is how it helped our class members understand how one another’s dominant styles impact our abilities to work together in group settings.  I can vouch for the accuracy of some of the assessments made – in my group for Project Management, our “golds” were the ones who naturally took it upon themselves to set up Google documents for us to work on, or to work on detailed production schedules.  But to my original point, I don’t think they needed to be assigned a colour to be aware of these talents, all one had to do was ask them what they were best at.

But is it realistic that an outsider would just come out and ask someone else what they are best at?  Probably not, and this leads me to the strength of True Colours – it gave our class members an opportunity to talk and be open with one other about our strengths and weaknesses.  It gave us insight into how we could complement each other’s input.  Just because my classmates and I are all self-aware doesn’t necessarily mean that we are normally at liberty to divulge.  True Colours, despite its shortcomings, afforded us that opportunity.

HOT TOPIC: Empathy (or lack thereof) matters as much as the message

I think it can be widely agreed that the Harper government suffers an image problem.  Perceived by many to be anti-environment and anti-science with a profound distaste for open debate, one of its few saving graces is its reputation as unwavering supporter of Canada’s Armed Forces.  It has even gone so far as to say that it rescued the Forces from the “Liberal ‘decade of darkness.'”

This image was tarnished beyond recognition this past Tuesday by the words and actions of Veterans Affairs Minister, Julian Fantino.

Mr. Fantino was scheduled that day to address a group of veterans who descended upon Ottawa to voice their opposition to the planned closure of eight Veterans Affairs offices across Canada.  The government’s decision for the closures was based on the steady decline in visits made to the offices in recent years.  In their place, Service Canada locations across the country would be staffed with one case worker apiece to manage veterans’ needs.  In the eyes of the veterans themselves, however, the solution was inappropriate and they demanded that the government defend its position.

This situation alone should technically have qualified as a PR problem for the Harper government, as their plans risked alienating a significant segment of their base.  What followed next, however, thrust what would have likely been a back pages news story into a front page headline.

Mr. Fantino began his error-prone afternoon by keeping the veterans waiting for over an hour before showing up to their scheduled meeting.  His streak of bad judgement continued by engaging in heated exchanges with decorated veterans clearly distraught over the minister’s lack of respect for Canada’s men and women in uniform.

The above news clip from the CBC contains all the necessary elements of a PR debacle for the Harper government:

  • A Veterans Affairs Minister caught in the act of being dismissive toward servicemen;
  • Overwhelming visuals of decorated war heroes (some in tears) calling for the minister’s resignation;
  • A conflict pitting a government widely regarded as detached and money driven against a band of aging war heroes;
  • Swift social media reaction – tweets echoing the veterans’ disgust with Fantino’s performance were displayed on television *during* the live press conference.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the policy of the Harper government, one thing is for certain: the main story on Tuesday was less about the government’s message and more about its tone-deaf delivery.  Rather than taking the opportunity to manage and defend his ministry’s already unpopular position, Julian Fantino escalated the public’s ire further by expressing his indifference on the matter.  An empathetic spokesperson would have left the impression that the Harper government viewed Canada’s veterans as something more than a financial liability.

… Must be like Rocky

The very first thing I learned upon becoming a student of corporate communications at Toronto’s Centennial College is that I am a much worse writer than I used to be.  Years of work in (literally) clinical work environments in the pharmaceutical industry must’ve bred the skill right out.

It so happened that my employers back in those days did not find much value in fancy phrasing or clever wording in business emails.  My most recent manager once told me “Mike you are a ruminator” as he asked me to reign in my lengthy writings.  Reluctantly over time my expression was thus limited to one- or two-sentence correspondences.  (Happily, though, I took the above-mentioned managerial encounter as inspiration for the name of this blog.)*

monkey typewriter

When I decided to leave pharmaceuticals for the world of corporate communications, I had visions of stretching out and writing to my heart’s content.  To my disappointment today, I find that the part of my brain responsible for translating thoughts into paragraphs has atrophied.  I now must turn myself into a Rocky Balboa of linguistics for the next eight months and train for the Main Event: when I present myself to the labour market as a freshly-minted communicator, ready to be productive.

One thing that hasn’t diminished over the years – the reason I chose corporate communications in the first place – is how much I enjoy the challenge of putting ideas together in a logical, cohesive way.  That is to say, I like to tell a story when I communicate (something that evidently wasn’t required so much in my previous work experience).  So far, so good – the faculty at Centennial takes that notion to heart as well.  So much so, in fact, that the campus where I study was recently rechristened as The Story Arts Centre.  When I ultimately get into the workforce I see my role as one in which I express my employer’s (or client’s) message to the public within the context of their mission, values and services.  In other words, their story.

The one thing that – somehow – caught me a little off-guard about Centennial’s program is the strong emphasis on social media.  Of course I was well aware Facebook, Twitter et al. play a role in how a company projects itself, but I considered it to be somewhat negligible.   Then within days after starting the program I began to view the daily news through a PR lens and saw how impactful it was.  If a story told through traditional media touches a nerve, the public’s views are made very clearly, very quickly via Facebook, Twitter and blog posts.  Stakeholders on the matter consequently become more accountable and are forced to respond with great speed (and with great care, as their words and actions are subject to instant, public scrutiny).  Already I’ve learned that there really isn’t much of a distinction between traditional and social media; the two both feed into – and off of – each other.  Looking back it seems so obvious.  Can’t wait to learn more.

The self-critic in me is saying that this entry is not a great start to my blog, but please bear in mind that I am still just raw egg-eating Rocky right now – you are reading in my training ground.  It will get better from here!

*Note: I don’t want to leave the wrong impression about my former manager – he is a super-nice guy.