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Despite Controversy, Dr. Oz Maintains Wide Appeal


Just as Donald Trump often seems to straddle politics and entertainment, Dr. Oz straddles medicine and entertainment. Both men are polarizing and controversial. Oz got his start in TV as a highly respected surgeon. And to this day, he remains on the faculty of Columbia University's medical school.


That's despite the fact that prominent doctors all over the country consider him a quack. A study in 2014 found half the claims he was making on his show were baseless or wrong. Some doctors even tried to get Columbia to fire him.

SHAPIRO: For insights into this doctor-turned-TV-personality, we called on Professor W. Douglas Evans. He's a health communications expert at the George Washington University. His view on Dr. Oz and other celebrity doctors is that they do provide information people are hungry for. It comes at a price, though.

W DOUGLAS EVANS: They're straddling a line. They're straddling a line between providing scientific, medical kinds of information and entertaining the public. That's what Dr. Oz runs into. Certainly he is a good communicator.

I think the issue that he has, though, is the question of sort of how does he balance his responsibility, his Hippocratic oath with his role as an entertainer? I mean there's no denying, as you pointed out, that he is basically wearing an entertainer's hat.

SHAPIRO: When the criticism started to become really intense - as we mentioned, a group of doctors called on him to be fired from Columbia University - Dr. Oz said he would retool his show, lean more into the science. Do you think that has happened?

EVANS: I think he's made some efforts in that regard. I wouldn't say that he has completely retooled the show. I think that's an overstatement. I think, you know, he has certainly brought on some guests that are respected scientists. But you know, that doesn't change the inherent nature of his conflict.

He's operating both as an M.D., somebody who's on the faculty at Columbia University, one of the most respected universities in the world, and at the same time is operating as essentially a businessman and an entertainer. And he's delivering non-fact-based, non-evidence-based medical advice. I mean that is the definition of quackery.

You know, he I think has changed the balance of his presentation on the show and probably deserves some credit for that, but that doesn't change the inherent conflict.

SHAPIRO: Some prominent figures have been on his show recently. Michael Botticelli, who oversees drug policy at the White House, did an episode about the opioid epidemic. For public health, does Dr. Oz's show remain an important platform?

EVANS: I mean I think there really is a public service role to raising awareness about these issues. I think the public's increasingly aware of, you know, the opioid epidemic. And the extent to which we can educate the public - I think that can raise public trust and confidence and hopefully increase support for those efforts financial and otherwise.

But you know, I - is this really - represent a change in Dr. Oz's approach on the show? I think that's another question. I mean he's trying to change the image of his show, and you know, I don't have a problem with him doing that. I think if I were in his position, I'd probably be doing the same thing. But does it change that inherent conflict that he faces between being a medical doctor and, you know, being an entertainer - no, it does not.

SHAPIRO: So I hear you saying he has done good. He has a platform where he is reaching people with a public health message that has positive impacts. And I also hear you saying sometimes he's a quack and he says things that are not backed up by science.

Would you like to see him just behave a little more responsibly, or do you think that celebrity doctors like Dr. Oz should not be using their medical credentials as a platform for entertainment at all?

EVANS: I do think that there's a lot more that these kinds of celebrity docs can do. I think that they can present much more balanced views. I think they can point out that some of the information that they're presenting, for example, about the latest diet are not backed up by solid evidence and that, you know, these are things that are still being investigated and not present them as if they're there cure-alls.

I think there just needs to be a much more balanced presentation of information to the public, and I think a lot of people are hungry for that and would accept it. Would that increase his ratings - probably not. It might actually decrease them a little bit, but he'd be doing more of that public service that I think he needs to achieve.

SHAPIRO: Professor W. Douglas Evans is director of the public health communication and marketing program at the Milken Institute's School of Public Health at George Washington University. Thanks for joining us.

EVANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.