The 70-year-old Trump, widely criticized for having an iffy grasp on science, has chosen to go to a doctor known for blurring the line between medical science and pseudoscience — a situation that promises to be a setup for all sorts of outrageous banter.
There are Trump's views linking autism and vaccines, as expressed during one of the Republican primary debates. Or how about his apparent dismissal of the danger of superbugs and other public health threats? In a response to a question about how he would deal with the issue should he be elected, Trump said: "The implication of the question is that one must provide more resources to research and public health enterprises to make sure we stay ahead of potential health risks. In a time of limited resources, one must ensure that the nation is getting the greatest bang for the buck."
Trump's interviewer, Oz, a 56-year-old heart surgeon, Columbia University professor and star of “The Dr. Oz Show," is perhaps the only doctor whose reach and influence rivals the candidate's. His average audience tops out at millions each day in more than 100 countries, and he has his own magazine, syndicated columns, radio segments and books. His vast empire also includes the requisite app, "You Feel," which is promoted as a way of answering the question about how you're doing today through pictures, videos and other multimedia.
But the good doctor's career has also been plagued, especially in recent years, by criticism for ignoring evidence-based medicine and promoting of quack treatments.
Perhaps the single-most damaging scandal involved "magic" weight-loss pills made from green coffee extract ingredients. "You may think magic is make believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found a magic weight loss cure for every body type," Oz had exclaimed on the air on one of his shows. "This miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. This is very exciting and it's breaking news."
That study he based his breathless show on was later found to be bogus and it was retracted by the researchers. Moreover, the company that makes the supplement had to pay the Federal Trade Commission $3.5 million to settle complaints about its specious claims. Oz's website was subsequently "scrubbed of almost every mention of the green coffee extract, including the episode touting the product and the 'independent' experiment he and his show conducted to present their own evidence of the substance's weight-loss effects," my colleague Abby Philips wrote. "The 2012 episode has also vanished from YouTube due to a 'copyright claim by doctoroz.' "
In 2014, the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, found that this was not a one-time oversight. It turned out that less than half of Oz's recommendations on the show were based on credible evidence. In December, things turned even worse for Oz when he was summoned to Capitol Hill to explain himself. In describing the tense hearing, a Slate reporter commented that "Oz continues to try to claim that his endorsements are legitimate, but anyone with a functioning temporal lobe can tell that even he must not believe his words."
“The scientific consensus is monolithic in being against you in terms of the efficacy of these products,” admonished Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)
Vox, in a profile of Oz last year, came up with a very long list of questionable promotions, topics and guests:
He used his own made-for-TV studies to suggest little kids are getting poisoned by arsenic in apple juice (when the Food and Drug Administration has shown this isn't true), and to promise his audience that green coffee bean supplements "burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight." He has featured discredited research that claims genetically modified foods are harmful to humans, stoking fears about the foods.
Many guests on Oz's show also endorse questionable health claims, particularly in pursuit of profit. Monica Seles, the star tennis player, recently appeared in a segment about binge eating. At the time, she was a paid spokesperson for the drugmaker Shire, which recently won FDA approval for the binge-eating drug Vyvanse.
Oz has shared the stage with vaccine deniers, and activists like the Food Babe (known to scientists as "the Jenny McCarthy of food"). Recent investigations by the Federal Trade Commission show that at least one of his miracle-touting guests used the program as a platform to deceive audiences and sell products, capitalizing on the "Oz effect" — or the fact that whenever he so much as mentions a product, stores can't restock it quickly enough.
At the height of the Ebola panic last year, Oz suggested the virus could go airborne — even though there was universal agreement among virologists that the pathogens have never behaved that way.
Early last year, Oz's own peers turned against him. In a scathing letter to Columbia's dean of medicine, 10 physicians, surgeons and professors expressed "surprise and dismay" at the school's continued affiliation with him:
Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgements about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both. Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz's presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.
It was signed by Henry I. Miller and Scott W. Atlas from Stanford; Gordon N. Gill from the University of California at San Diego; and Joel E. Tepper of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, among others.
A rebuke by his colleagues at Columbia followed. Writing in USA Today, they stated that "Oz is a good doctor, but his unscientific distortions mislead the public."
In a New Yorker profile, Eric Topol, one of the country's most respected physicians and who founded the medical school at Cleveland Clinic, described Oz's advice as "medutainment":
"Mehmet is a kind of modern evangelist. ... The problem is that he is eloquent and talented, and some of what he says clearly provides a service we need. But how are consumers to know what is real and what is magic? Because Mehmet offers both as if they were one."
Shortly thereafter, Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Radio terminated his radio show, although it has tried not to make any direct link between the criticism and its decision. Winfrey, who has been described by Oz as a personal friend, helped Oz gain prominence by having him on her show early in his career and was the first to give him his own show in 2009.
Oz has defended himself by saying that "The Dr. Oz Show" is “not a medical show."
“We very purposely, on the logo, have ‘Oz’ as the middle, and the ‘Doctor’ is actually up in the little bar for a reason. I want folks to realize that I’m a doctor, and I’m coming into their lives to be supportive of them. But it’s not a medical show,” he said in an interview with NBC News at the time.
Trump had originally planned to release his health records to Oz, and his campaign said the two would tape a show Wednesday during which Oz would reveal his medical assessment of the candidate's health before the studio audience. But Trump appeared to change his mind early Wednesday, saying that the medical records would only be released "soon."
Selecting Oz was a bit of a gamble for the candidate. While it's a safe assumption that most doctors will toe the party line when talking about health conditions, diagnoses and prognoses and stick to the what's known from the scientific literature and recommendations from the big medical associations, Oz is more of a wild card.
Indeed, Oz's comments about the kinds of issues he'd raise with Trump were not particularly reassuring if you were the one being scrutinized. While he pledged that he wouldn't ask the candidate about things "he doesn’t want to have answered," Politico pointed out that he also emphasized, "I want to ask him pointed questions about his health.”
Let the speculation begin about what happened behind the scenes and what we'll see when the show airs tomorrow.