Now that Hillary Clinton has been diagnosed with pneumonia, the health of the two major presidential candidates has suddenly moved from the fringes of the political conversation to the center of the race.
For some time now, the health of both candidates has gnawed at the margins of the campaign, threatening to break into the spotlight. The Trump campaign has for months been raising doubts about Clinton’s health — subtly echoing far-right conspiracy theories that the Democratic candidate has some chronic, debilitating illness — while touting Donald Trump’s own “health, stamina and strength.” Back in December, Trump’s personal doctor crafted a letter declaring that, if elected, Trump would “be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” (turns out that letter was written in the span of five minutes as a limo waited for the doctor outside). Though Trump hasn’t yet released his medical records, he’s promised they will reveal “perfection.”
But after Hillary Clinton canceled appearances early this week while she recovers from pneumonia, the medical records of the two candidates took on new urgency in the political press. The Clinton campaign promised to release Clinton’s health records sometime this week.
And that is where Dr. Mehmet Oz — “America’s doctor,” star of The Dr. Oz Show, and a man who has built a TV empire on a mountain of pseudoscience — comes in.
On Tuesday morning, Fox and Friends reported that Dr. Oz would reveal the results of Donald Trump’s physical — both to America and to Trump himself — on his show Thursday.
That is terrible news, because Dr. Oz is a proven peddler of pseudoscience and misinformation. It’s also absolutely perfect, because Dr. Oz and Donald Trump are more similar than you might think — both are entertainers that have convinced millions of Americans to buy the expertise they are selling.
Building a pseudoscience empire
Despite his accomplished medical background (he graduated from Harvard, went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, and practices medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center), the bulk of Oz’s present-day fame and fortune rests on his media personality — the television appearances that gave way to his own show, The Dr. Oz Show, in 2009, along with his magazine columns that eventually gave way to his own magazine, the Good Life, in 2014. Since 2009, the show has produced over 500 episodes, broadcast in 118 countries, and boasts over 4 million viewers daily. His website, DoctorOz.com, tallies 10.8 million unique visitors each month, and over 68 million page views.
Over the course of those 500 episodes, Oz has spoken about health issues ranging from insomnia to cancer. But he has also peddled questionable (at best) and misleading (at worst) health advice: he has extolled the benefits of homeopathy (which several scientific megastudies have found to be no more effective than placebo), suggested that children are being poisoned by aresnic in apple juice (also not true), and peddled weight-loss cures like green coffee bean and Garcinia cambogia extract as “simple solutions” and “miracle pills” (they are neither and also potentially dangerous). Eventually, Oz was brought before Congress to testify about the scientific-basis of many of the claims he had made on his show.
“While I understand that your message is occasionally focused on basics like healthy eating and exercise, I am concerned that you are melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said during the hearing.
Her concerns are not unfounded: According to a British Medical Journal study, which looked at the scientific validity of the statements made on two medical television shows, including The Dr. Oz Show, half of Oz’s recommendations are either contradicted or not supported by current medical research.
And the way that his show treats their guests and experts could be even more dangerous to public understanding. He’s hosted everyone from vaccine deniers to anti-GMO activists, all without highlighting the fact that their preferred health theories run counter to general scientific consensus. That might be because Oz, on his show, is woefully under-prepared to interview guests — a Federal Trade Commission investigation found that one purported nutrition expert, Lindsey Duncan, who was featured on The Dr. Oz Show used the show as a platform for selling green coffee bean as a weight loss supplement, a product that Duncan had a financial stake in.
When The Dr. Oz Show reached out to Duncan to see if he would come on as an expert in green coffee beans for the show, Duncan was working as a marketing executive of two companies that sold and advertised the green coffee bean. He was neither a doctor nor a nutrition expert, and he had no experience studying the green coffee bean. Nonetheless, The Dr. Oz Show had Duncan on as an expert, introducing him as a naturopathic doctor and certified nutritionist there to reveal the findings of a breaking scientific study.
“You may think magic is make believe,” Oz said as he introduced the segment. “But this little bean has scientists saying they found the magic weight loss cure for every body type.”
When Oz asked Duncan for details on how the green coffee bean aids weight loss, Duncan told Oz that the bean is “what we call the triple threat,” which causes the body to “burn glucose or sugar and burn fat, mainly in the liver,” and “slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream.” To which Oz, the Harvard and University of Pennsylvania-educated doctor and esteemed Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center heart surgeon, replied, “Right.”
Ahead of Thursday’s episode, Oz has promised to ask Trump “pointed questions about his health,” which would certainly be a departure from the show’s traditional manner of inquiry.
The birth of an entertainer
Before there was Dr. Oz, the charismatic TV personality, there was Mehmet Oz, born in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio to Turkish parents. As a child, Oz spent his summers in Turkey, where he had his first brush with non-Western medicine, something that would inform his own medical practice for years to come. After graduating from high school, Oz attended Harvard for his undergraduate studies, before receiving a joint MD and MBA from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Penn’s Wharton School — the same business school from which Donald Trump graduated. Oz went on to practice medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, where he received the center’s prestigious Blakemore research prize on four separate occasions.
According to Vox’s Julia Belluz — who wrote a fantastic profile of Oz last year — Oz is almost universally well-respected among his colleagues at Columbia. He holds 11 patents for inventing methods and devices involved in heart surgeries and transplants, and helped turn Columbia’s “LVAD [left ventricular assist device — a device that keeps heart transplant patients alive while awaiting an organ] program into one of the biggest and most active in the world.”
Even throughout his early career in medicine — before the television show and the magazines and the health empire — Oz was interested in alternative medicine. Belluz traces this interest back to Oz’s childhood experiences in Turkey, as well as the time he spent there training in the Turkish military (to retain dual citizenship). In 1994, Oz co-founded the Cardiac Complementary Care Center at Columbia-Presbyterian with Jery Witworth, a registered nurse. At the Center, Oz and Witworth experimented with alternative techniques like hypnosis and reiki.
But Witworth and Oz began to drift apart because of what Witworth saw a “media circus” that Oz had created around the Center’s alternative techniques. Oz would reportedly bring in cameras and film two-to-three-minute soundbites about particular patients and their response to the Center’s medicine. Witworth felt uncomfortable with the attention.
“We are in our infancy. We haven’t proved anything. Before you’re going out there to major media, we need to look at what we’re doing here,” Witworth reportedly told Oz. According to Belluz, Witworth closed the Center, out of frustration, in 2000, only for Oz to reopen it under another name.
By 2004, Oz was making regular appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show. In one early instance, he showed viewers two different hearts, one supple and red, one bloated and white. He asked Winfrey to touch the organ.
“You want to feel the soul?” he asked her.
Dr. Oz is the Donald Trump of medicine
In 2013, Michael Specter profiled Oz for the New Yorker. Many details of the piece stand out, but one anecdote is particularly striking in light of Oz’s appearance with Trump. In describing a scene where Oz stepped out of a car at the entrance of a hospital, Specter described the crowd’s reaction to Oz — sheer adoration — and his to them. “He worked the line like a gifted politician,” Specter wrote, “hugging people as they flipped open their phones and tried to get a picture with him.”
“‘I worship you, Dr. Oz,’ one woman told him. Another threw her arms around his neck. ‘I haven’t seen a doctor in eight years,’ she said. ‘I’m scared. You are the only one I trust.’”
Oz is a charismatic man — it’s something that comes across on his television shows and in the many media profiles that have been written about him. But beyond his charisma, Oz has a kind of innate understanding of how to package and explain complicated, medical and health issues to a public that is long on appetite and short on understanding. He has risen with — perhaps even given birth to — the wave of celebrity science that has infiltrated consumer culture — the idea that a Gwyneth or an Oz can guide us through detoxes and diets and leave us feeling healthier on the other side. Like Donald Trump, who has capitalized on nationwide feelings of distrust with politicians, Oz has capitalized on the fact that Americans are increasingly suspicious of the health care system and their healthcare providers.
Like Trump, Oz is a master of deflecting criticism back onto his critics — and like Trump, it seems that criticism and outrage do little to deter Oz’s most loyal supporters. When ten doctors and professors from across the country penned a letter to Columbia asking the medical school to denounce its affiliation with Oz, Oz fired back on his show by accusing several of the doctors of having ties to Monsanto. On social media, his supporters leapt to his defense.
I don't care what critics say. Dr Oz rocks!! #DrOzscandal
— Judy Clark (@TheJudyAnnster) April 25, 2015
Dr. Oz has too much to lose why would he lie #DrOzscandal
— James Howard (@xhs_JamesHoward) April 22, 2015
Like Trump, Oz is a man that has turned his professional past into a career in entertainment. Ultimately, both men leverage that fame to sell a product — in Trump’s case that product is, ostensibly, wealth and success. In Oz’s case, that product is ostensibly health. But in both cases, the product that the consumer is really buying is little more than a name. Trump wasn’t selling steaks because he dreamed of taking over the meat industry; he sold Trump Steaks because it allowed him to have a cardboard cutout of himself in American malls across the country. And while Oz might not have a financial incentive to peddle weight-loss cures like the green coffee bean, he certainly understands what American television viewers — and consumers — want. In the 2013 New Yorker profile, a cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic referred to Oz as “a kind of modern evangelist.”
“Mehmet was always unique,” he said, “but now he has morphed into a mega-brand.”
This comparison is likely a little unfair to Oz, who, unlike Trump, has a proven track-record of excellence in his field. In both Belluz’s and Specter’s profiles, Oz’s colleagues speak of him with respect bordering on reverence. They use descriptors like “talented,” “brilliant,” “very charming,” and “uniformly respected and admired.” But Oz is also an entertainer — one that has gradually, though not entirely, eschewed practicing medicine in an operating room for practicing medicine on a daytime talk show.
So of course Donald Trump would choose to reveal his medical results on The Dr. Oz Show. Forget, for a minute, Oz’s history of peddling pseudoscience to his viewers, forget the fact that Oz’s show is notorious for letting guests get away with almost anything. Trump, at his core, is an entertainer — and he knows another good one when he sees one.
UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, a Trump senior aide told reporters that Trump would not be revealing his medical information on the Dr. Oz Show. Trump will still appear on the show, but will discuss “well-being, being active and positive thinking.”
The Trump campaign will not say when the Republican nominee plans to release his medical records, telling reporters only that the information will be released “shortly.”