Selling Science or Snake Oil?

Posted by The Evidence Blog on August 27, 2014

In case you missed it, last month a panel of senators on Capitol Hill grilled Dr. Mehmet Oz, of The Dr. Oz Show, about the weight-loss products he discusses on his show. If you’ve ever watched the show, you know that on a regular basis he extols the virtues of supplements such as green coffee beans and garcinia cambogia for weight loss. The problem, and the reason the senators asked Oz to appear, is that these products have little, if any, scientific evidence to support their use.

Since weight-loss supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), companies that sell these products don’t need to get FDA approval before marketing them to the public. Stroll through the weight-loss aisle of your local drug store and you’ll see shelves filled with products claiming to promote safe—and fast—weight loss. The online marketplace, too, is cluttered with similar products. Unfortunately, consumers need to understand that just because a product is available to purchase does not mean it is safe or that it works.

Dr. Oz didn’t exactly offer the panel a mea culpa. But he did offer to tone down the language he uses on the show and he will publish a list of products that he believes actually help people lose weight. Whether he’ll evaluate the scientific evidence that exists when he develops this list is open for debate.
And that’s the problem. Dr. Oz has an estimated 4 million viewers daily. His recommendations and advice can have a huge impact on public health in this country. But when you’re peddling snake oil rather than science, the results can potentially do more harm than good. When patients trust Dr. Oz more than their own primary care physicians, they may choose to disregard scientifically sound medical advice in favor of recommendations based on pseudoscience.

That’s why Benjamin Mazur, a medical student at the University of Rochester, in New York State, drafted a policy for the Medical Society of the State of New York, where Dr. Oz is licensed, for more active oversight and action against inappropriate and inaccurate medical testimonials on television and in other media. He also presented the policy to the American Medical Association (AMA). The New York medical society adopted the policy in modified form, but the AMA did not, choosing instead to reaffirm their existing policy.

But this isn’t the end of the debate. The push toward evidence-based medicine and approaches to care has never been stronger. Initiatives such as the Choosing Wisely campaign and efforts from Benjamin Mazur and other physicians are bringing attention to the potential harms that can result when patients and providers fail to do their research into claims about any treatments they are considering.

Topics: Hayes Blog

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