Having faced adversity, Dr. Mehmet Oz revives his everyman bedside manner with a goal to help his audience achieve balance in their lives.
It’s the kind of comeback story Americans love. Granted, Dr. Mehmet Oz’s fall from grace was nothing on the order of some of the more spectacular celebrity scandals – Martha Stewart’s insider trading conviction comes to mind – but for Oz, dubbed America’s doctor, it was a singular blow in a life of uninterrupted success in two of the toughest and most competitive fields: medicine and media.
In June 2014, Oz was chastised by no less an authority than a U.S. Senate panel for touting weight-loss products on his syndicated show. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill accused him of perpetuating fraud by promoting products as “miracle” cures.
In April 2015, a group of 10 prominent doctors demanded he be removed from his position as a professor in the department of surgery at Columbia University, charging that “he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”
Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and medical director of Integrative Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, successfully fought off that attack, showing that some of his accusers had ties to pro-GMO groups – Oz had criticized GMOs on an episode of his show – and ulterior motives of their own.
“I spent most of my adult life with folks complimenting me for what I’ve been able to accomplish,” he told me during an interview in Toronto. “I didn’t expect the criticism and the most surprising part was I didn’t understand it.”
Oz has probably had more impact on more people than almost any doctor in American history.
After landing Oprah Winfrey as a guest on his first TV show, she returned the favour, booking him as a regular guest on her highly rated TV and radio programs.
By 2009, he was so popular that he got his own daily show where he championed healthy eating, exercise and weight loss above everything else. He wrote advice columns and graced the covers of numerous magazines from Esquire to Men’s Health and Good Housekeeping. He co-authored the best-selling You series with Michael Roizen. In 2014, he launched a magazine of his own, Dr. Oz: The Good Life.
Last November, the Dr. Oz Show partnered with leading organizations in the addiction field to hold a “National night of conversation” to engage families in drug addiction awareness and prevention. The U.S. Surgeon General appeared on the program, and the professional journal “Alcoholism Drug Abuse Weekly” featured a headline blaring “Dr. Oz Brings Addiction Discussion to the Masses.”
Oz launched his own version of a truth and reconciliation commission to learn why many of his fellow physicians were upset with him.
He had private meetings with unspecified groups of doctors who were angry about the kind of advice he was giving their patients. It’s easy to see how the Dr. Oz imprimateur on products like raspberry ketones or his signature “detox cleanse” could put patients at odds with their primary caregivers.
“If Dr. Oz had been promoting evidence-based information, then I highly doubt many doctors would complain,” wrote Dr. David Gorski, possibly Oz’s fiercest critic, on his blog Respectful Insolence.
“Instead, they had to spend endless hours trying to explain why garcinia cambogia is not a magical fat-burning supplement.”
“Like any clinician, you cannot fix a problem you do not see or understand,” Oz said. “It was actually very healing for me when I found honest people who were upset.” He told me those encounters led to deep conversations and mutual understanding.
“It’s hard to dislike people when you know them well because you understand them better,” he said. It is telling that he wanted his detractors to like him.
Any doctor with a mindset shaped entirely by Western medicine would have a hard time understanding Oz, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether the entire controversy is just a clash between the medical establishment and someone more open to alternative approaches. Oz was a rising star in academic surgery when Oprah discovered him. He achieved more fame and fortune with his own show by embracing what Dr. Gorski refers to as “woo.”
Gorski is a surgical oncologist, an associate professor of surgery at Wayne State University and managing editor of the website Science-Based Medicine. He’s also a well-known critic of alternative medicine. Oz’s own father, Mustafa, a retired thoracic surgeon, is in the same camp.
In a 2013 profile in The New Yorker, Oz told Michael Specter: “He thinks what I’m doing is very fringe and he’s worried about me. He keeps asking me when I will be done playing around with this stuff and settle back down to medicine.”
Oz has learned some lessons from the tough experiences of the last year, but he isn’t exactly recanting his positions.
“If I could go back in time,” he says, “I would never talk about weight loss supplements – not because I don’t think they work, but because the field is so polluted with junk right now.”
Oz says of Gupta, the balance comes on other days. “There are many days that he preserves for his family, not just his kids but also his parents.” Oz is Gupta’s friend, and he assures me he can vouch that this actually happens. “It’s not easy,” he concedes.
In his own life, becoming a grandfather put him on track to balance. “It’s the most blissful experience of my life. It makes being a parent worthwhile,” he quips. “When your kids have their own children, you watch life recreating itself. It’s an unbelievably fulfilling experience, plus you can always give the kids back.”
He says he has become more adept at shifting his priorities with each child and grandchild who has come into his life.
“My biggest regrets in life are those birthday parties of my kids that I missed. With each child, I realized that those missed opportunities weren’t worth it because as they got bigger, I’d never have those moments back again.” What really struck a chord was his admission that if he was honest, he’d admit that he really had the flexibility to be present at some of those occasions he “had” to miss. The same is true for so many of us.
I asked him about the ability to be in the moment – something we both agree takes a lifelong practice. Oz offered a tip that he has used personally, his five-minute downtime rule: “I want everyone to go to the bathroom because I know no one will bother you there … put the lid down and just sit there for five minutes, enjoy the blissful moment of whatever you’re going through that day … Crazily, by yourself, you’ll be able to process what’s happening in a way that allows you to live more in the moment when you come out of your five-minute session.”