The Hollywood Medical Reporter – The Land of Oz

Ethics are murky when it comes to the depiction of medical science on television shows and films. Despite a growing consensus that many of these shows dangerously misinform the public, there is no clear consensus for a solution. The primary reason for this situation: these forms of media are designed as entertainment, not education. As a result, their artistic license – freedom of expression – frees them from much regulation.

However, this argument reflects dated preconceptions about the media, and television specifically. Broadcast television of today has nothing more than a tangential relationship with television of the past. Nothing is time-dependent anymore. You can watch whatever you want wherever you want, on a TV on a PC, on a phone, whatever. Television shows are therefore ubiquitous in society. More importantly, television has become acutely aware of it own power, not only to influence but to make audiences believe in a program’s “reality”.

This situation has given birth to (among other things) what many have deemed “The Dr. Oz Effect.”

Dr. Mehet Oz, once just a recurring guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, today is the star of his own Emmy Award-winning Dr. Oz Show. Among the top-rated daily television programs in the US, the show is only one piece of the medical-media franchise he has now become.

Oz’s success and influence should not come as any surprise. When presented with a handsome doctor who, we are told, serves as the vice-chairman of the department of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, in addition to having the coveted Oprah stamp of approval, why would you think to question his medical advice?

If his intent is not to influence medical understanding and subsequent action, then why not call it The Oz Show? It’s “Dr Oz,” thank you, a title that confirms credibility and trust. He’s got a joint MD and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Wharton Business School, after receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard University. He directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Such a resume commands authority. This ain’t no fictitious doctor on a medical drama – he’s the real thing.

Dr. Oz welds the power of a primetime infomercial, a medical news report and a televangelist all in one. This immeasurable influence is evidenced by the countless times a product featured on his show experiences a radical, overnight boost in sales. Such strong and consistent correlations negate any argument that television personalities like Dr. Oz are not consciously contributing to the proliferation of medical scams that endorse false and/or misleading information in the guise as helpful medical facts.

For example, in November 2013, Cleopatra Mcdouglad of Los Angeles signed up for a free trial offer for a product advertised on Facebook claiming to be endorsed by the renowned Dr. Oz. Because, like millions of others, she hold Dr. Oz’s words in great regard, she ordered the “miracle” supplements of garcinia cambogia and green coffee extract, after being told the only charge was going to be $7 for shipping. In the end, though, Mcdouglad learned she had been scammed into a membership with recurring shipments at nearly $100 per bottle; she was charged $600 from August through October.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no legal power to regulate weight loss supplements. As such, companies can make claims, lacking any semblance of scientific backing (or rational and ethical thought). Because no approval is required, the FDA can only investigate products after reports of harm have already transpired. Such a system is only reactive, not preventative.

There have been increasing efforts aimed at keeping regulations up with the times. For example, Title 16 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR), Chapter I of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Subchapter B of “Guides and Trade Practice Rules, Part 255: this addresses the “Guides Concerning Use Of Endorsements And Testimonials In Advertising.” Despite the regulation’s efforts, it makes a distinct point not to purport any absolute and clear rules for evaluating or even defining endorsements and testimonials. In May, they sued the sellers of Green Coffee Beans for “deceiving consumers through fake news sites and invented health claims.”

Many of these advertisers used video of Dr. Oz promoting the miraculous benefits of Pure Green Coffee. Dr. Oz did this in full awareness of the feeble scientific evidence supporting green coffee bean extract as an effective weight loss supplement.

On June 15th, 2014, Dr. Oz faced a Congressional hearing, with specific investigation into his promotion of weight loss products on his show. Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate’s Consumer Protection panel, said, “I’ve got no problem with celebrity endorsement of any product but I do have a problem when a science-based doctor says something is a miracle when there’s no science to back it up.”

Here are a few quotes made by Dr. Oz in past episodes of his show:

“You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type: It’s green coffee extract.”

“I’ve got the number-one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat: It’s raspberry ketone.”

“Garcinia cambogia: It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

Sen. McCaskill noted how, “the scientific community is almost monolithic against you [Oz] in terms of the efficacy of those three products [the three aforementioned quotes] that you called miracles.”

While I share the Senator’s outrage, I believe she would agree that we know the answer. While Dr. Oz told the committee that he avoids endorsing specific brands outright, his website lists six “trusted partners”: Aquaphor, Eucerin, Meramucil, Omron, Schiff and Walgreens.

When actor Chris Robinson endorsed Vicks’ new cough syrup in a 1984 advertisement, he said, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Oz gets to say, “I AM a doctor and I play one on TV.”

The Dr. Oz Show, and others like it, demonstrates a media culture that is actually taking steps backward in ethical responsibility. Now personalities like Dr. Oz are saying, “I’m actually a medical doctor, and let me show you this magical new product that happens to be for sale.”

Dr. Oz, admits to using “flowery language,” on his show. Furthermore, he expressed regret that his “passionate” language, “ended up not being helpful but incendiary and it provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers. Yet, in the same breath, Dr. Oz claims he is the victim of scam ads using his name, and giving viewers/consumers the false impression that he supports the given products’ sales.

This defense eludes me.

This is a bona fide medical professional that elects hyperbole over scientific fact. Such behavior is not merely reprehensible but reflects the antithesis of a true health professional.

Dr. Oz cannot hide behind good intentions, victimization, and certainly not ignorance. The fact is this man can provide good, ethical advice. But, he chooses to trumpet pseudoscience to a trusting audience who he knows cannot separate the fiction surrounding his facts.

Image via Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock.

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer, media and brand strategist, specializing in the film and television industry. Before moving to Los Angeles, Daliah worked in project development for Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye at Unique Features. Her interdisciplinary background includes collaborating with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph J. Ellis (on a screen treatment for his award-winning book) and has shared her know-how on initiatives such as The Fox Writers Intensive and various other screenwriting competitions and festivals. Daliah's work on an innovative, original TV medical pilot is what led her to meet Brain Blogger founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and begin their many collaborative endeavors. She now lends her expansive knowledge of the art and business of the film and television industry as a freelance journalist and has come to be known as "The Hollywood Medical Reporter," for her precision and passion for ethically accurate entertainment.
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