a superstar in scrubs

What a great piece by Michael Specter in this week’s New Yorker… a fascinating profile of Dr. Mehmet Oz, a rising (risen?) star in the new (and questionable) field of medutainment, yet one who also has the credentials to back it up.


Impeccably educated, with a career that led him to the top of his field as a cardiac surgeon, Dr. Oz at the same time presents what is for the most part accurate and somewhat complex science to the masses with the charisma and showmanship of an old time medical show. It’s precisely the blending of these two wherein the opinions on him diverge. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood (sorry, couldn’t resist).

I hadn’t seen his show, and rarely watch television other than as background noise when I’m cooking, which I happened to be doing this afternoon, and kaboom! voila!, there it was… Dr. Oz on homeopathy, so I watched.

I’m a believer in homeopathy, although I don’t have too much direct experience with them other than the standard flu and cold remedies available at Whole Paycheck Foods. When I lived in Europe, though, I learned not only how mainstream these treatments are there, but also how interesting the basic tenet of their use is, similia similibus curentur, or “like cures like.” I also know that if you mention homeopathy to most people not into alternatives (in all realms) they would take you for a flake. So yes, interesting, very much what Specter mentioned about Dr. Oz’s choice of often alternative treatments presented to a very mainstream crowd.

Watching the show I could immediately see what he meant about the showman aspect to Dr. Oz’s infotainment, the graphics and poppy dialogue, the interaction with audience members and the guests who seem way too chipper and bring out the skeptic in me (were they paid to recommend that product? who are they and why are they on a talk show?).

That said, I also felt myself softening to him, wanting him to bend low and look into my eyes and discuss my health. He seemed so intelligent, so caring, so kind, so interested and interesting. A dream doctor, indeed.

I’m rather formal with my physicians, and they are with me, which I like, but I must say I will never forget the time a doctor who was about to perform surgery on me placed her hands on mine and paused, speaking to me in a way so direct and gentle that all else around me dissolved and I believed that she was seeing me and not just a woman wearing a hospital gown that exposed far too much, who was in denial of the fact that all this was very scary indeed. She saw me, and she truly seemed to care. From that moment I relaxed into her care and trusted her completely, something I’m not oft to do.

Specter recounts a great example of Dr. Oz’s cocktail of “powerful graphics driven by a compelling narrative,” in an early appearance on Oprah in which Oz illustrated the effects of excess weight on the heart. The content was absolutely correct and scientific, but the delivery was dramatic and… well… entertaining. Actual hearts held and cut open, bags of fat carried around to make a point. Yet for all the pomp and circumstance he had everyone, apparently, mesmerized. More importantly, he had everyone paying attention. How many times have you heard the same message before yet how many times have you, come on, admit it, tuned it out. There is no tuning out Dr. Oz.

But precisely what turns me off about this, about the show, about the fact that real, important information is dressed up in glittery showmanship, is what makes it work for so many. The majority of Americans need this wrapping in order to pay attention, they need to be sold, to be marketed to, to be coaxed and stroked and titillated in order to open up their minds to new ideas. The fact is that many of the people who probably watch Dr. Oz would otherwise be watching some inane reality show which dumbed them down, while in a way he is doing the opposite. Whatever his methods, he motivates people to pay attention to their health, to their lifestyles, presenting material that would normally never even enter their sphere of interest let alone understanding.

I don’t expect to become a fan, but does that matter? I not only have access to amazing physicians (thanks to my health insurance) but am a relatively informed patient. But what of those who aren’t so fortunate? What of those who just might go and see their doctor now about that lump or that cough or might be motivated to get walking or swimming or cut back on the calories? For so many people taking care of themselves is something they either avoid or are ignorant of. He just might change that, for them, and for that I would forgive his kabooms and his often guruish chutzpa.

Specter asks the question “Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?” I’m not certain he answered that, and I suppose even if he did there would be as many answers to his question as there are people who watch Dr. Oz’s show or who seek out his advice via his myriad of videos, books, etc.

I sort of have the same feelings, a love/hate (well, not hate, how could I hate a man who is all about simplicity and love?) about Leo Babauta and his zenhabits.net which I read often. Like Oz, he presents ideas which make sense, he motivates his audience to do make fundamental changes in their lives to better them, to better the lives of others, yet at the same time he’s selling videos and courses and asking for my money.

Well, why not? Perhaps I need to push aside the mistaken yet stubborn idea I have that when someone makes money on something that somehow lessens the sincerity of their intention. Or, even more, perhaps I need to realize that today in order to share your thoughts, your beliefs, your words, with a broad audience you have to market them or they will simply be lost in the noise. A painter, a writer, a scientist, a politician, a physician… needs a presence and a brand in order to be heard. We all, in a way, need to learn how to give a good show.


3 thoughts on “a superstar in scrubs

  1. A bit behind in my New Yorker reading, so thank you for the highlights. It is interesting for I do not watch TV, nor Oz. I only became aware of his ‘charlatan’ ways so to speak after a ‘health blog’ I subscribed to was being lambasted by its readers for mentioning a Oz article on (insert food topic) here.
    It seems that dear doc has done a 360 on certain things (eating organic, for ex) and those peeps on this blog felt that he has sold out. Meh, he probably shops at Whole Paycheck (love that!) too and needs to have his healthy fridge stocked by someone, right?! Your suspicions seems spot on to me. Be well ~ a

  2. I read that piece, too . . . and I thought it was a pretty good profile which in some ways really balances on the notion that the doctor/patient relationship is not the paternalistic one it was. As someone inclined to seek alternative, less-invasive treatments for anything that ails me, but has great appreciation for what Western medicine offers, my ideal doctor (who I am yet to find) is a blend of both (a la Andrew Weill or Mehmet Oz). While Michael Specter brings a bit of a skeptic’s eye to his piece, he does raise valid questions — even if he doesn’t quite answer the provocative one re: whether Oz is doing harm.

    1. I suppose anyone who has the power to capture the attention of the mainstream always treads a very thin wire.

      It just seems to me that the fact that he has been able to earn a listening ear of a daytime audience which is usually drawn instead to honey-boo-boo-type “reality” tv (quotes intentional) or banal soap operas, to talk about health, has done some good. I am disturbed by some of the allegations, but if he is somehow raising awareness and getting people to talk about and take interest in their own health that is a very good thing.

      p.s. I loved your last post…made me smile.

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