Columbia University finally cuts ties with America’s Quack Dr. Oz

Linda Rider

It’s never been a secret that we at SBM are not fans of Dr. Mehmet Oz. It’s hard not to have encountered him before, given his fame and now his full embrace of President Trump for his campaign to become the Republican nominee for the Senate from Pennsylvania. As you might recall, Dr. Oz was a young rising star in academic cardiothoracic surgery in the 1990s, and even I have to admit that his achievements back then were impressive. Then something happened. Dr. Oz embraced reiki, founded Columbia University’s integrative medicine program, and ultimately, after having met Oprah Winfrey and been featured on her show periodically as “America’s Doctor” (which led me to start referring to him as “America’s Quack” beginning years ago), hosted The Dr. Oz Show, which ran for nearly 13 seasons; that is, until Dr. Oz cut the last season short a few months ago and ended his show to run for the Senate for Pennsylvania. Of course, Dr. Oz being the long-time quack and grifter that he was, it didn’t faze him in the least that he had lived in New Jersey, not Pennsylvania, and worked in Manhattan for decades; he voted absentee in 2020 using his wife’s parents’ address in the Philadelphia suburbs. When last we discussed him on SBM, unsurprisingly Dr. Oz was pulling a common quack trick by challenging his critics (in this case, specifically Dr. Anthony Fauci) to a “debate”.

Those of us who promote science-based medicine and try to counter quackery and antivaccine misinformation have long lamented how Dr. Oz, despite promoting misinformation about health for over a decade, maintained his positions at Columbia University as professor and vice-chair of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as the medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program (i.e., Columbia’s quackademic medicine) program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. It’s a lament that we tended to repeat almost any time Dr. Oz hit a new low in promoting quackery (which was depressingly not infrequent). We kept wondering why Columbia would continue to employ him in such high level leadership positions for so many years, despite his increasingly awful reputation in medicine for promoting quacks like Joe Mercola and even Mike Adams. That’s why a spate of stories that appeared over the last couple of days caught my eye:

Given Dr. Oz’s history, I thought it would be interesting to discuss what happened in relation to his longstanding leadership positions at Columbia University, calls for Columbia to disassociate itself from him over the years, and his general history of having promoted dietary supplement scams, cell phone-cancer pseudoscience, homeopathy, psychic mediums, and other quackery going back decades.

Dr. Oz and Columbia: What happened?

The first story about this appears to have been the Huffington Post report, published in January:

TV doctor-turned-politician Mehmet Oz has apparently retired from clinical practice and his faculty role at Columbia University since announcing his Senate run in Pennsylvania.

Oz, who once served as vice chair of the surgery department, now holds the title of “professor emeritus of surgery” at the Ivy League school.

The title reflects the fact that Oz, 61, no longer sees patients, according to a Columbia spokesperson, but it’s unclear how long he’s been retired from his clinical practice. Oz didn’t have the emeritus title as recently as last month, just after he launched his campaign.

An emeritus status is conferred to retired professors and faculty members “in recognition of distinguished service to the university and eminence in their discipline,” according to the university.

The university didn’t respond to questions about when the change took place or how involved Oz still is with its medical faculty. Oz is also now a special lecturer in the surgery department.

More:

Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center maintains a page for Oz, listing an office for him at its Washington Heights campus and noting that he specializes as a board-certified cardiac and thoracic surgeon.

But as of early December, Oz was still listed as a professor of surgery and as director of the Integrative Medicine Center — a department that, according to its description, would combine traditional medicine with alternative practices such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga. It’s unclear what happened with that role.

I was actually surprised at how long ago this news article was published, as I thought I had become a bit of an expert on Dr. Oz and his quackery. Yet, for some reason, before the more recent reports (the other three in the list, all of which were published over the weekend), I had never heard about the change in his status at Columbia University, nor had I known that he had stopped seeing patients at least a few years ago. Indeed, it made me wonder whether the very convenient resurrection of the Huffington Post story two weeks before the May 17 Pennsylvania primary election next week was the work of one of Oz’ Senate rivals. Whatever the reason the story resurfaced, I’ll mention again how I’ve often wondered how Dr. Oz could hold those leadership positions at Columbia and host a daily hourlong syndicated TV show with an insatiable maw for new material, and still maintain competence at a surgical specialty that, even among surgical specialties, is very technically demanding. It requires regular practice to be able to stay slick and smooth sewing those little blood vessels together so that the anastomosis stays open and doesn’t clot, for instance.

It’s also interesting to note that if you click on the original Columbia webpage link for Dr. Oz mentioned in the HuffPo report, the page is no longer there, and the Wayback Machine at Archive.org gave me an error message searching for it. Interestingly, his former page at the Department of Surgery at Columbia returns an “access denied” message, but the Wayback Machine does return a version of it as late as December.

As mentioned in the article, it would make sense if Dr. Oz had been kicked up to emeritus status, as that is frequently what happens when long time faculty members retire. It allows them to keep a title, continue to have access to university email and library services, while maintaining some connection to the university for teaching or part-time research. (Indeed, I hope that when I finally retire I can become an emeritus, as one of my partners did a couple of years ago.) However, apparently the HuffPo article got that part wrong. Although a January 26 addendum to the story states that Dr. Oz “became a professor emeritus and special lecturer in 2018,” the story in The Daily Beast notes:

His name no longer appears in website searches for doctors with the school’s Irving Medical Center. A Columbia faculty listing still says Oz has an office, along with the role of special lecturer—though not “professor emeritus.” But as with a handful of other names on the list, Oz’s listing no longer links to his faculty page, as it did one week before he launched his campaign. (Nearly every other faculty member without a link is no longer affiliated with the medical center; one of them died last year.)

The outgoing message on Oz’s voicemail for the listed number is quite dated, directing callers to medical services when Oz stopped taking patients four years ago. The message also advertises audience tickets to his now-extinct daytime TV show.

The timeline I’m getting here is that four years ago Dr. Oz’s position at Columbia changed. Whether he stepped down or was pushed out, apparently he no longer had a leadership position at the medical school, nor did he even (again, apparently) continue to have a position as a full professor in the department of surgery there. What truly happened in 2018 is likely known only to Columbia University administration and Dr. Oz himself. What these reports do reveal is that, whatever happened, both the university and Dr. Oz kept it on the down-low, which led to the headline of The Daily Beast story on Saturday, ‘Chickenshit’ Move: Columbia Quietly Cuts Ties With Dr. Oz:

Dr. Daniel Summers, a Boston-area pediatrician and writer, called Columbia’s stealth purge a “chickenshit” move.

“Their handling of his status there is a massive blot on their reputation. What a chickenshit thing to do,” Summers told The Daily Beast.

Dr. Summers is not wrong, of course. It was a rather cowardly way of cutting ties with Dr. Oz after he had been there for more than three decades, during most of which he promoted his brand and quackery. However, even after that, Dr. Oz remained a presence on the Columbia website. Knowing how university websites tend to work the way that I do, I rather suspect that the usual slow (or nonexistent) process of updating Columbia’s website to reflect Dr. Oz’s true status ran headlong into the news coverage of Dr. Oz’s impending Senate campaign that began in late 2021, leading to a panicked scrubbing of the website. In other words, it’s unlikely that the most recent scrubbing was anything nefarious, but Dr. Summers does have a point that, if Columbia and Dr. Oz severed ties four years ago, it was rather slimy to have done it so secretly that no one really noticed until Dr. Oz decided to run for the Senate. That, of course, assumes that this severance occurred in 2018 and not a few months ago.

As bioethicist Art Caplan notes in a story from The Guardian yesterday:

The prominent medical ethicist Dr Arthur Caplan, who in 2014 accused Oz of “promoting fairy dust”, told the Guardian he was not surprised Columbia had “quietly eliminated” Oz.

“They won’t have a press conference in the middle of this guy running for the Senate saying they were throwing him out … it could be seen as trying to influence an election, it could be risking bad blood should he become a senator,” said Caplan, professor and founding head of the Grossman School of Medicine Division of Medical Ethics at New York University.

“My question becomes, ‘What took so long?’ He’s been a huge danger to public health in the US and around the world for a long time with respect to quack cures for Covid and touting quackery to treat diseases.

“I was among the voices saying he had to be removed years ago. And I still think it’s the right thing to do because he really has forfeited credibility as a doctor. Whether that will matter in terms of the election, we shall see.

“I think it should, I doubt it will.”

All of this is true but assumes that this severance occurred a few months ago, when Dr. Oz first decided to run for the Senate. If it happened in 2018 and the Columbia website just never reflected it until now, then the reasons mentioned by Dr. Caplan don’t apply. Whatever happened, though, I think it’s useful to relate Dr. Oz’s history at Columbia and wonder why Columbia defended him and maintained him in multiple leadership positions at its medical school for so long. I also can’t help but briefly relate an incident very much like what Dr. Caplan described from years ago when a group of doctors did try to shame Columbia into doing something about Dr. Oz, an effort that backfired spectacularly.

The long and quacky road of Dr. Oz

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve long been extremely critical of Dr. Oz, even having coined the term “America’s Quack” to describe him, an obvious riff on Oprah’s name for him, “America’s Doctor.” Of course, Dr. Oz didn’t catch Oprah’s eye for just being a rising star in academic surgery in the 1990s. Rather, long before Oprah ever noticed him, Dr. Oz had made a name for himself by embracing pseudoscience and mysticism in the form of reiki. However, his embrace of pseudoscience goes back to long before even the 1990s, back to his childhood, as related by Julia Belluz at Vox in 2015, in which she noted the disconnect between his promising start and what he had become:

Oz has achieved some of the greatest scientific accomplishments of his career at Columbia. While a resident there, he was the four-time winner of the prestigious Blakemore research prize, which goes to the most outstanding surgery resident. He now holds 11 patents for inventing methods and devices involved in heart surgeries and transplants. This includes helping to research and develop the left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, which helps keep people alive while they’re awaiting a heart transplant. Oz had a hand in turning the hospital’s LVAD program into one of the biggest and most active in the world.

Dr. Oz has been a rare beast on one respect. It’s pretty uncommon these days for an academic physician or surgeon to spend his entire career after medical school at one institution, but that’s what Dr. Oz appears to have done, starting with his residency, after which he became junior faculty and made his way up the academic ranks. Whatever the shape of his career, I always imagine what could have been if Dr. Oz had not been seduced by the siren call of quackery. Can you imagine the scientific and surgical accomplishments that he might have made in an alternate timeline in which, instead of embracing reiki and then other forms of nonsense, he had stuck to science-based medicine and research? Unfortunately, though, as Belluz notes, the “roots of Oz’s experimentation with alternative techniques go all the way back to his childhood, and that his departures from evidence-based medicine have gotten more extreme as he’s become more famous”. Although he had had exposure to quackery as a child in Turkey, his turn to the dark side appears to have really accelerated after he met his wife:

There was another influence, too. While he was studying for his medical degree and MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, Oz met his wife, the actress Lisa (then Lemole). Lisa’s dad was also a cardiothoracic surgeon who embraced alternative medicine and Eastern mysticism, and, according to a profile in the New York Times, her mother “believed fervently” in homeopathy.

In 1994, Oz launched the Cardiac Complementary Care Center at Columbia-Presbyterian with a certified perfusionist and registered nurse, Jery Whitworth. The center, one of the first of its kind in the nation, was “created, in part, as a response to consumer demand for comprehensive care,” Oz and Whitworth wrote in a 1998 scholarly article.

I also note that Lisa Oz herself became a reiki master, and later in the 1990s:

They also used audiotapes to try to subconsciously relax patients before surgery and brought reiki — or “energy medicine” — into the operating room. Reiki, an ancient Japanese healing art, has never been shown in scientific studies to alter the outcomes of patients. One high-quality study on the effect of reiki on pain in women after C-sections showed that it had no effect. Science-based thinkers have wondered whether it’s ethical to continue studying reiki, given that we know it works no better than a placebo and we may be diverting funds from treatments that could actually help people.

Oz’s work with the center drew critics. One Mount Sinai physician told the New York Times in 1995: “I call practitioners of fraud practitioners of fraud. It’s my feeling that the [center] has been promoting fraudulent alternatives as genuine.”

I can’t help but note that Belluz cited an article by Steve Novella and me that questioned whether clinical trials of “magic” (like reiki and homeopathy) could ever be ethical. (Spoiler alert: We concluded that the answer was—and is—no.) I also can’t help but note that the problem of academic medical centers legitimizing quackery under the guise of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” is nowhere near unique to Columbia, although Columbia’s integrative medicine center under Dr. Oz’s leadership was one of the “pioneers” (if you can call it that) of “integrating” quackery into medicine. Just look at the examples of the Cleveland Clinic, UC-Irvine, UCSF, Georgetown, the University of Michigan, and many others, if you don’t believe me. Dr. Oz, unfortunately, is merely the most famous example (among the general public, at least) of physicians “integrating” mysticism, pseudoscience, quackery, and just plain grift into medicine.

In any event, instead of Dr. Oz continuing his research prowess to provide actual advancements in cardiothoracic surgery and cardiology, instead we got the huckster Oz, America’s Quack. But why? Michael Specter once noted in 2013, quoting Dr. Oz:

“I would take us all back a thousand years, when our ancestors lived in small villages and there was always a healer in that village—and his job wasn’t to give you heart surgery or medication but to help find a safe place for conversation.”

Oz went on, “Western medicine has a firm belief that studying human beings is like studying bacteria in petri dishes. Doctors do not want questions from their patients; it’s easier to tell them what to do than to listen to what they say. But people are on a serpentine path through life, and that is the way it is supposed to be. All I am trying to do is put a couple of road signs out there. I sit on that set every day, and that is what I am focussing on. The road signs.”

As I’ve long noted since I read that article, back when our ancestors lived in small villages, medicine consisted of shamans, priests, and magicians who couldn’t actually do much for anything other than relatively minor physical injuries, for which they could bind up wounds, sew up lacerations, and splint fractures. Then, they could do little or nothing to treat serious infections and other diseases. If people got better, it was usually because the disease was self-limited or the victims were fortunate. Oz also appears to buy into the false dichotomy that drives me crazy whenever I hear it: Namely that in order to be a good “holistic” doctor, you have to embrace the quackery that is much of what is now referred to as CAM or “integrative medicine”. My retort is always that you don’t have to become a quack to be “holistic”. I also question Oz’s romantic view of these “healers”. It sounds all too much like the “noble savage” myth, a case of Oz falling for romantic primitivism, which he seems to want to fuse with modern medicine.

If you want to know why Dr. Oz promotes so much quackery, I’ll refer back to Specter, who explained it by letting Dr. Oz speak for himself and asking Oz how he can feature on his show people like Joe Mercola, who are anathema to science and promote pure quackery. This passage is what I view as the central exchange in Specter’s entire article, as to me it revealed exactly why Dr. Oz has been the way he is and why he promotes the quackery he promotes:

“I’m usually earnestly honest and modest about what I think we’ve accomplished,” Oz told me when we discussed his choice of guests. “If I don’t have Mercola on my show, I have thrown away the biggest opportunity that I have been given.”

I had no idea what he meant. How was it Oz’s “biggest opportunity” to introduce a guest who explicitly rejects the tenets of science? “The fact that I am a professor—one of the youngest professors ever—at Columbia, and that I earned my stripes writing hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed journals,” Oz began. “I know the system. I’ve been on those panels. I’m one of those guys who could talk about Mercola and not lose everybody. And so if I don’t talk to him I have abdicated my responsibility, because the currency that I deal in is trust, and it is trust that has been given to me by Oprah and by Columbia University, and by an audience that has watched over six hundred shows.”

I was still puzzled. “Either data works or it doesn’t,” I said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?”

Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

The problem, of course, is that Mercola was overjoyed to be on The Dr. Oz Show, recognizing it correctly as a great opportunity to promote his brand. Did Dr. Oz point out all the quackery that Mercola promotes? (I think you know the answer to that one.) Worse, it’s clear that Dr. Oz bought into what has become known as the “post-truth” narrative, in which science is just another way of knowing, another religion so to speak—before the term “post-truth” was coined. Sadly, it was all of a piece with Oz’s other stated desires in the article, namely to have healers the way we used to hundreds or thousands of years ago. Many of those healers were shamans or priests, and much of what they did was little more than placebo medicine and faith healing. So for Dr. Oz to pine for a return to that time made perfect sense in the context of his other activities. Of course, I’m sure that Dr. Oz has always imagined that he will “integrate” those ancient healing practices with modern medicine. That’s what “integrative medicine” is, after all.

The Teflon doctor

It’s long been clear that Dr. Oz is a huckster, dedicated to being a showman more than he was ever dedicated to science—or even being a “shaman-healer”. That’s why one consistent thread throughout Dr. Oz’s career going back 30 years (at least) is his uncanny ability to promote his brand while defending it quite effectively from attack. Julia Belluz noted that in her article:

Monique Class, a family nurse practitioner and another former employee of the center, said the media attention negatively affected their work. “It became about Oz. Not about the project. Not about the patients. Not about the work. That all became secondary to his rise to the top.”

It wasn’t uncommon, Class said, for Oz to say some version of the following to her or to the other employees: “Give me a patient because the cameras are coming in, and tell me what I need to know.”

Class said, “He was always acting. He didn’t know this patient. He was not connected to this patient. We’d give him a two- or three-minute sound bite and he’d sit there in front of the cameras like he’d done this work and had this deep connection.”

Which is actually exactly the opposite of what shaman-healers did and also an indication that it’s not about the patients but rather about Dr. Oz and his brand. Shamans actually tried to form attachments to their patients based on their long history of living in the same villages and communities, of which patients and shamans were both part. In contrast, Dr. Oz has long used his patients as steppingstones to become famous, which he justified to Michael Specter thusly:

One day, I asked Oz whether he minded that many of his medical peers criticized him for following the dictates of daytime television more than the demands of scientific truth. “I have always played offense,” he responded. “So I don’t care what people call me. I used to. I felt that to say I was an entertainer was dismissive. But it is part of what I have to do. I want to get my message across to people who are not going to get it in other ways. And I can’t do that if I am not palatable to the people who watch the show.”

I’m sure he tells himself the same thing about his decision to become a carpetbagger from New Jersey running for Senate in Pennsylvania, just as he did when he invited Donald Trump to appear on his show before the 2016 election. I’m equally sure that he told himself the same thing back when he started promoting hydroxychloroquine and other unproven treatments for COVID-19 two years ago, when the pandemic was new.

The perfect example of Dr. Oz’s uncanny ability to defend his brand occurred in 2015, when a group of ten doctors led by Dr. Henry Miller wrote a letter to the Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University arguing that Dr. Mehmet Oz shouldn’t be on the faculty at Columbia University because of his “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops” and “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain”. The letter produced a fair amount of media attention at the time, but I predicted that it would backfire for a simple reason, which I’ll briefly explain now.

Of the ten signatories, two were from the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University whose fellows tend to be climate change denialists. In other words, it’s an institution whose commitment to science is highly questionable to nonexistent in one area, and it’s attacking Oz for pseudoscience? Two others are affiliated with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that is pro-science when that science aligns with industry interests, particularly the pesticide industry. ACSH’s late president Elizabeth Whelan was known for dismissing any concerns about various chemicals as potential health hazards as “chemophobia” and even referring to “chemophobia” as an “emotional, psychiatric problem,” which is not very skeptical at all. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, a few years ago, when ACSH invited me to be on its board of advisors, I turned it down because I perceive ACSH as going too far in the other direction (not to mention the problem of its behaving largely like an industry shill) to the point that it takes the germ of a reasonable idea (that there’s too much fear mongering about “chemicals”) and takes a despicable turn with it by implicitly likening concerns about chemical pollutants and other chemicals that might cause health problems to mental illness by labeling them “chemophobia”. More recently, ACSH demolished whatever credibility it might have had as being about science more than politics when a week after President Trump’s inauguration ACSH President Hank Campbell published an article on its website heartily endorsing Trump’s picks for key science and medical posts. (I note that the article is no longer there, producing an Error 503 message of “This article is temporarily unavailable. Please check back in a few days,” but thankfully the almighty Wayback Machine at Archive.org has preserved it.)

I bet you can see where this went. Dr. Oz is nothing if not masterful at propaganda. He struck back on his show, sighing heavily about “ten mysterious doctors” with industry ties to for trying to shut him up because he criticized genetically modified organisms (GMOs), before predictably attacking the ACSH using predictable lines of attack, many summarized in a TIME interview with Dr. Oz that was so pro-Oz that I thought someone from his staff had written it:

With a few clicks and some simple searches, a remarkable web of intrigue emerged—one that the mainstream media has completely missed. The lead author, Henry I. Miller, appears to have a history as a pro-biotech scientist, and was mentioned in early tobacco-industry litigation as a potential ally to industry. He also furthered the battle in California to block GMO labeling—a cause that I have been vocal about supporting. Another of the letter signees, Gilbert Ross, was found guilty after trial of 13 counts of fraud related to Medicaid. He is now executive director of American Council on Science and Health, a group that has reportedly received donations from big tobacco and food and agribusiness companies, among others. Another four of the 10 authors are also linked to this organization.

The attacks were particularly devastating, as cheesy as they were on his show, because they were mostly true. ACSH is basically an astroturf organization that represents industry interests, particularly for the food and pesticide industries. Its stances on vaccines, alternative medicine, and GMOs do align largely with those of SBM, but also largely for the wrong reasons (particularly GMOs and pesticides). Basically, the stunt resulted in a lot of attention from the press on ACSH’s more unsavory elements and history, to the point that even Ross himself regretted signing the document, saying in an interview:

“Given the mistake I made more than 20 years ago, I now recognize that I should not have added my name to (the) letter,” Dr Ross is quoted as saying. “Even though I believed in the letter’s content — to focus attention on the often-questionable medical advice Dr Oz dispenses on TV — I see that by doing so it only opened me up to personal criticism. It also diverted necessary attention away from challenging many of Dr Oz’s unscientific claims. My involvement was solely based on trying to protect America’s public health.”

Ya think?

I also can’t help but note that one of the signatories of the article is someone who’s become rather famous since the pandemic hit, Dr. Scott Atlas, the neuroradiologist with no expertise in infectious disease, epidemiology, or public health and was associated with the conservative Hoover Institution think tank who headed up President Trump’s coronavirus task force in 2020. He was known for advocating for fewer interventions to slow the spread of the virus, consistent with his admiration for the Great Barrington Declaration and it’s “let COVID rip” strategy to achieve “natural herd immunity”.

Currently, the polls that I’ve seen show the contest for the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania Senate to be close, with some polls showing Oz leading and others showing him behind, but none by that much and the overall trend being that Dr. Oz is slightly behind. It’s still possible that Oz could win the primary.

Still, if politics is the reason that Columbia finally severed ties with Dr. Oz (or at least led them to finally fire him from his leadership positions), all I can say is that it’s sad that it took politics, rather than Dr. Oz’s long promotion of quackery and pseudoscience to motivate the administration there to do the right thing, something that should have been done at least a decade ago. Unfortunately, if Dr. Oz overcomes the odds and becomes the next Senator from Pennsylvania, he’ll be more powerful than he’s ever been and able to influence health care policy in a major way. Even if he loses (as I suspect that he will), I’d be willing to bet that it won’t be long before he resurfaces to quack again.

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