The Oz Effect

My wife remembers when Dr.  Oz was just a handsome and engaging cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital. She graduated from Columbia P&S the same year Mehmet Oz appeared on Oprah and began his journey to being a household name. Dr. Oz has become so popular and pervasive that any “health supplement” he endorses on his show sees a huge boost in sales: the “Oz-effect.” The problem is that there is no evidence to support any of these miraculous claims he makes.  Congress recently gave him a public shaming for these shenanigans.

It is interesting to note how upset much of the press is getting with Dr. Oz. Many other programs on TV make outrageous claims about health, science, and reality. So what’s the big deal?

What Dr. Oz has done with diet supplements is fundamentally unethical because he is exploiting the goodwill extended to him because he is a doctor—a formerly legitimate doctor associated with an Ivy-league medical institution. Currently he is valuing sensationalism, viewership, and ratings over the truth as it relates to health. And while many roll their eyes or guffaw at those of us who continue to promote the Hippocratic ideal in medicine, it is clear that the backlash against Oz is so severe because he has so egregiously violated the principle that the good of the patient should come before anything else.

The internal morality of medicine goes back to Hippocrates the Aesclepiad, which is distinct from the ethics that govern mercantilism and commerce. I love this old engraving (found in Galerie Mythologique: Recueil de Monuments by Aubin Louis Millin, Paris 1811) because it so clearly shows the difference between the practice of medicine and commerce.

It shows Asclepius and his three daughters, Hygeia, Panacea, and Meditrina shunning Mercury, the god of commerce. Many would contend that modern medical practice is often indistinguishable from pure business. Indeed even the symbol of Mercury, the caduceus, is often confused and conflated with the rod of Aesclepius. If it is true that there is no real distinction between the healing profession and mercantilism then why do we hold Dr. Oz to a higher standard than any other person making wild claims on an infomercial?

It is because, just as the engraving shows, there is a deep and abiding distinction between those of us in the healing profession and those selling products claiming miraculous results. Society still expects doctors not to exploit others’ weaknesses—we must always keep their best interests ahead of our own. Dr. Oz has failed to do that. Sadly his reprimand came from Congress and not from our own medical societies.

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