The Burden of Being Dr. Oz
A recent comic strip entitled “Off the Mark” (written by Mark Parisi) depicted the following: the Tin Man comes upon Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion in the woods. At their feet are the remains of the Scarecrow. Dorothy, who along with the Lion, is eating the last bits of straw, says to the horrified Tin Man: “Dr. Oz said to eat more whole wheat…”
Admittedly, this cartoon takes the influence of Dr. Oz to the extreme. But its premise is not too far from the truth. Dr. Oz has become America’s physician. He has the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey as well as his own show that’s on daily (twice a day in some markets!) and he recently won two Daytime Emmy awards, one for best informative talk-show and the other for best talk-show host. His show is watched by millions of people. He is clearly beloved by his followers. He is better known and, when it comes to dispensing medical advice, he is more influential than the US Surgeon General (Dr. Regina Benjamin, in case you might have forgotten).
But this notoriety and influence put an onus on him to be especially accurate in his comments and opinions. A few weeks ago, I appeared on Dr. Oz’s show along with Dr. John Abramson, a critic of the pharmaceutical industry. During one segment, Dr. Abramson and I debated the value of statin drugs to prevent heart attacks and strokes: Dr. Abramson taking the view that statins are unnecessarily prescribed while I defended the fact that statins have saved countless lives. Dr. Abramson said that he often took his patients off statins and I was stunned by this. I turned to Dr. Oz and asked: “Dr. Oz, you’re a cardiologist, how do you prescribe statins?” He replied: “I am usually the one taking them off statins” at which point the audience broke out into applause.
Dr. Oz then said that he doesn’t have a vendetta against statins and that: “There are people whose lives are saved every day with statins.” However, I am afraid that these later points were lost both to the audience and the millions who watched the show. What many people actually heard from Dr. Oz’s pronouncement was that millions of people are needlessly taking statins. This is evident from subsequent summaries of this discussion that now appear on various websites. These summaries highlight the fact that Dr. Oz takes patients off statins and don’t mention his points about how statins do save lives.
Like Dr. Oz, I am a big believer in making lifestyles changes, such as watching your diet or exercising, as a way of warding off disease and also preventing the need for medications. But doctors don’t haphazardly prescribe statins to their patients. They prescribe these drugs knowing their patients’ health history and medical profiles. When a patient hears someone as prominent as Dr. Oz saying that medicines like statins are overprescribed, many are likely to stop taking these drugs – resulting in potential dire downstream consequences.
Dr. Oz does a great job in things such as warning his audience about the perils of too much sugar in their diet. He is a great teacher of good nutrition and the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. A lot of what he covers on his show is quite informative. But Dr. Oz is in a much different position than other daytime hosts. His words are gospel to the American public. Thus, he has an enormous responsibility when it comes to commenting on medicines that members of his own profession prescribe. Unfortunately, there will be patients who will act like Dorothy and take his words a bit too far.