Celebrity TV physician Mehmet Oz is running in the Republican primary to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate. Trained as a heart surgeon, Oz became famous as a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and later launched his own daytime TV series, in which he dispensed medical advice for 13 seasons. Before becoming a medicine-show entertainer, Oz did some truly groundbreaking work at Columbia University with respect to pioneering minimally invasive surgical techniques to repair damaged hearts.
Oz's "Why I'm Running" statement leans heavily on the disarray and discord provoked by COVID-19. "The urgency of my decision crystalized during the pandemic," it says. "At least half a million American people have died from the virus, a devastating toll for families and communities. What also hurts is that many of those deaths were preventable." He adds, "In this emergency, we needed capable leaders ready to act—and we didn't get that. The entire situation angered me."
Oz specifically inveighs against "elite thinkers who controlled the means of communication" and the "arrogant, close-minded people" who "closed our schools, shut down our businesses and took away our freedom." He adds: "America should have been the world leader on how to beat the pandemic. Instead, we were not."
A lot of "elite thinkers" in the media are responding by calling Oz a quack. "Just What the Quack Ordered: Dr. Oz Expected to Announce Pennsylvania Senate Run," proclaims Vanity Fair. "Quack TV Doctor Thinks He Deserves to Be a Senator, Because That's Where We Are Now," headlines Rolling Stone. "Dr. Oz Quacks the Code of Republican Party," quips The Bulwark. MSNBC piles on with "Dr. Oz is the TV quack candidate Republicans deserve."
Are they right? Again, Oz has been a skilled and innovative heart surgeon. But his long-time advocacy of unconventional treatments and therapies have indeed prompted criticism from a lot of his medical colleagues.
Going back to 1999, Oz co-wrote "A Study of the Effect of Energy Healing on In Vitro Tumor Cell Proliferation," published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. In that study, an "energy healer" tried to slow down the growth of cancer cells in Petri dishes. Oz and his colleagues reported that "energy healing appears to influence several indices of growth in in vitro tumor cell proliferation" but ultimately found that the effects were inconclusive. Other researchers have been more firmly negative: A 2005 study in the British Journal of Cancer testing the powers of three different energy healers on cancer cell growth in Petri dishes reported that its "results do not support previous reports of beneficial effects of spiritual healing on malignant cell growth in vitro."
Nevertheless, Oz has maintained his interest in "energy healing." On a 2004 episode of NPR's Speaking of Faith, Oz told host Krista Tippett: "Let's take a big area of energy. And whether energy exists or not at the macro level, at the level of the human being, is a difficult thing to tell." Still, he continued, "Why would we not think that disturbances of that energy might cause some of the ailments that we cannot, today, put a name on?"
In 2012, Oz wrote a glowing foreword to "energy healer" Raven Keyes' book, The Healing Power of Reiki, in which he explains that he had allowed Keyes (with his patients' permission) into his operating room while he conducted surgery. Reiki practitioners claim to heal by channeling universal life force energy through their hands into their clients' bodies.
"My reiki master is the archangel Gabriel. All I have to do is ask Gabriel to activate all the angels, and everybody's angels come to life," Keyes explained to Vox in 2015. "I'm connecting with the divine light within me and allowing myself to absorb the divine light in myself so it expands outward."
Despite its dubious direct therapeutic value, prestigious medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic do now offer reiki treatments as a form of complementary medicine. The Baylor rheumatologist Donald Marcus published an op-ed in The Journal of Clinical Investigation last year decrying the proliferation of alternative medicine offerings at leading medical centers. "The defining characteristic of alternative therapies," he argued, "is that their health claims do not meet evidence-based standards, and many, such as naturopathy, homeopathy, and energy healing, are scientifically implausible."
Other medical professionals have called Oz a quack because his TV medicine show has featured numerous charlatans peddling such pseudoscientific practices as homeopathy, iridology, astrology, and necromancy. Oz is usually careful not to specifically endorse the practices, but he uses verbiage—what he has described as "flowery language"—that viewers could easily assume were endorsements. And he has promoted several false claims on his show, including the ideas that apple juice is laced with arsenic and that a green coffee bean extract is a miraculous weight-loss remedy.
In 2014, a group of researchers published an article in the BMJ evaluating the medical recommendations made on televised medical talk shows. On The Dr Oz Show, they reported, peer-reviewed medical evidence supported 46 percent of his recommendations, contradicted 15 percent, and was not found for 39 percent. "Approximately half of the recommendations have either no evidence or are contradicted by the best available evidence," they concluded. "Potential conflicts of interest are rarely addressed."
In 2015, Oz hosted a program focused on apples genetically enhanced to be non-browning after they are sliced. During the show, he suggested that because we don't know what effects the apples can have on our bodies, we're "engaged in a bit of science experiment."
This provoked a group of pro-biotech researchers to write a letter to Columbia University arguing that Oz should be dismissed from the faculty. "Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgements about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both," they wrote. "Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz's presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable."
Columbia responded that the university is "committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members' freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion." For his part, Oz pointed out his accusers' own potential conflicts of interests. Shortly thereafter, in a 2015 op-ed in USA Today, eight of Oz's Columbia colleagues defended his freedom of speech but damningly added, "Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms regarding metabolism game changers. Irrespective of the underlying motives, this unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships."
Despite these contretemps, Oz's TV show sailed on, garnering ever more daytime Emmy awards. In 2016, Oz may have reached a political turning point when he took a televised patient history of reality-TV star and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. "You know, my wife is a big fan of your show, and I would absolutely say because I view this as in a way going to see my doctor," Trump observed. In 2018, President Trump appointed Oz to the 20-member White House Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Trump declared on March 19, 2020, that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was a potential pandemic "game-changer." Given his enthusiasm for "alternative" treatments, Oz's immediate jump onto the hydroxychloroquine train is not surprising, and it definitely put him closer to Trump's orbit. On Neil Cavuto's March 22, 2020, Fox News show, Oz touted the results of a sketchy study on the drug by the notorious French researcher Didier Raoult. Oz's subsequent appearances on various Fox News shows boosting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment apparently bolstered Trump's continued promotion of the drug.
In his Senate announcement, Oz says that he "tried to fund clinical trials to re-purpose an already widely used drug for possible benefits against Covid-19, but they were banned." Emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that starting on March 22, 2020, Oz contacted White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx several times asking for access to the drug for trials that he was arranging in New York. It is not clear that his trial got "banned," but several others were launched at around the same time.
In any case, after evaluating the results of numerous studies, the Cochrane review of evidence-based medicine concluded that "hydroxychloroquine does not reduce deaths from COVID-19, and probably does not reduce the number of people needing mechanical ventilation." In other words, the drug turned out unfortunately not to be a COVID-19 "game-changer."
So what does the angry doctor propose to do about America's many problems? Appearing for an interview on Fox News host Sean Hannity's November 30 show, Oz started out denouncing the "incredible authoritarianism" and "overreaching" that "metastasized" at the beginning of the pandemic. Yet Oz himself supported a lot of the early measures adopted to slow the virus' spread. On Cavuto's March 22, 2020, show, he said "we have to do" what he called "this quarantine" if we were "to slow down the growth of this epidemic." After all, Trump had just advised local and state governments to close schools, bars, restaurants, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor venues where groups of people congregate when there is evidence of community transmission of the virus.
In any case, Oz outlined three basic goals in his Hannity interview. The first is safety. "And safety in our body means high-quality health care. That's got to come. But on the streets, it means well-trained police," he said. "We got safety problems in the borders, too." Later in the program, when asked about what he would do about immigration, Oz said: "I think President Trump was right. People should wait on the Mexican side of the border to coming across illegally."
The second issue, Oz said, is that "you need choice" with respect to your children's education. "You need local rule, why wouldn't you be involved in figuring the curriculum of your kids' education, and you got to have your values defended," he argued. The third issue is jobs, but he didn't get around to explaining what he proposes to do about them.
Hannity also asked Oz what his political philosophy was. He responded:
I'll tell you one thing for sure, any government that's large enough to give you everything is powerful enough to take it all away. So I don't want that. I want liberty and freedom and that to me means limited government. We can do it better than folks very far away from us who don't know our local problems….
I believe in capitalism, which means lower taxes and regulations, so people can really compete, and I respect the Constitution, a brilliantly written document that I think should be honored on the bench, and sometimes isn't. We have free market solutions that work.
Those are appealing sentiments, but I don't think Oz is the best spokesman for them. His extensive history of credulously promoting dubious nostrums makes me question his fitness for office.