The trouble with Dr. Oz

Tribune Newspapers

Dr. Mehmet Oz is known as "America's Doctor," and it's not much of a stretch.

Though he is a medical specialist -- an acclaimed cardiac surgeon -- Oz offers health information on just about any topic, from diet to child care to sex, through a television show that averages 3.7 million viewers a day, six best-selling health guides, columns in Esquire and Time, and a Web site.

Millions turn to him for advice, looking for an authority figure to make sense of the flood of medical information available online and in the media.

Much of the material Oz provides is solid, but some medical experts express reservations about his approach, saying Oz's ventures also offer advice unsupported by science.

Oz has called the rotavirus vaccine "optional" -- a risky view, according to experts. He tells people to examine the shape and sound of their bowel movements closely -- a silly idea, specialists say. He invited a doctor to his TV show who has helped spread the idea that cancer can be cured with baking soda. On his Web site, another doctor endorses a group that promotes unproven autism treatments.

Oz declined to be interviewed, but his spokespeople say the doctor's mission is to give his audience information from multiple perspectives. His "Ask Dr. Oz" feature offers answers not only from prestigious medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic but also from alternative medicine practitioner Deepak Chopra and from Dove, maker of skin care and beauty products.

"The purpose of the site is to provide users with as much information as possible and allow the users to differentiate between what they find helpful and what they do not," Oz's spokespeople wrote in response to questions.

But more information is not necessarily better, as not all perspectives are equal in medicine.

"We have this population that is thirsty for a little sip of a drink ... and we are gushing them every day with this powerful fire hose," said Gary Schwitzer, a University of Minnesota professor and publisher of HealthNews, which rates medical news reports. "It is ineffective and it can be dangerous."

Science is not a democracy where people's votes decide what is right, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Look at the data, look at science and make a decision based on science that has been published," he said.

In a guide called "YOU: Having a Baby," Oz and his co-author express concern about whether rotavirus vaccines cause a rare intestinal complication called intussusception. The book suggests "you opt out of this one until more data are available -- unless your child is in day care or other high-risk circumstances."

But the question of whether the rotavirus vaccines cause intussusception has been settled, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, which all recommend the vaccines. Data from millions of doses in the U.S. have not shown a link.

Rotavirus infections, which cause vomiting and severe diarrhea and can be fatal, hospitalized tens of thousands of children annually in the U.S. before vaccines were available, according to the CDC.

Oz's book also uses the term "reasonable" to describe an alternative vaccination schedule favored by parents worried about giving their children too many vaccines too soon.

"It shows you that he is a cardiologist and not an immunologist," said Offit, co-inventor of the RotaTeq rotavirus vaccine. The immune challenges presented by vaccines are trivial compared with those faced by babies every day, he said. "It is a drop in the ocean," he said. "If our species were overwhelmed by vaccines, we would be in trouble."

Oz's baby guide recommends books by Offit about vaccines and autism. But it also recommends "Saying No To Vaccines," by an activist who compares immunizations to playing with a loaded gun.

The doctor's aim was to provide a platform for many points of view on vaccines, Oz's representatives said. "None are favored over another," they wrote.

That inclusive spirit also explains why Oz's Web site,, includes an entry on autism written by Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of "Beat Sugar Addiction Now!"

Teitelbaum, who does not treat autism, advises parents to ignore doctors who warn against natural therapies for the disorder. He labels as "excellent" the group Defeat Autism Now!, which has promoted risky and unproven treatments explored in a Tribune investigation last year. And he singles out an acupressure therapy for autism that, he says elsewhere on Oz's site, "uses muscle testing to see if you go weak when holding an allergen."

In an interview Teitelbaum said he has asked the Oz site to delete his reference to Defeat Autism Now!

There is also room for Dr. Joseph Mercola, who was a guest on "The Dr. Oz Show" and is labeled on Oz's site as "a highly esteemed pioneer" in alternative medicine. Mercola, who is based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., spoke on the show about krill oil. Mercola sells the oil on his Web site as "support" for joint comfort, liver function, heart health and a dozen other things, though he did not promote his product on the show.

Oz's site does not mention that the FDA twice sent Mercola warning letters about claims he made about other products. A Mercola spokesman said he has removed claims not supported by clinical research. Mercola also has written on his Web site about the unorthodox idea that cancer is a fungus treatable with baking soda.

"For it to be a fair discussion, we must include a multitude of voices and opinions, even those that may be controversial," Oz's spokespeople wrote.

The idea is to have "a conversation with America about health and wellness, in a way that we have never done on TV before," said Susan Wagner, senior medical producer of the syndicated "Dr. Oz Show."

But Schwitzer said that approach is not the most useful. .

"At the end of the day, are you really helping to educate people?" he said. "Are you making the picture more clear or do you have people's heads spinning like Linda Blair in ' The Exorcist' ''?

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