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Dr. Oz hooks viewers and confounds experts

Melissa Dribben McClatchy-Tribune

PHILADELPHIA – Mehmet Oz’s followers believe he is a trustworthy, serious-minded (and hot) physician.

His equally fervent flock of critics say he is a fad-foisting, ratings-grubbing (and smart) TV celebrity.

In the 10 years since Oprah dubbed him “America’s Doctor,” the 53-year-old Oz has shown he is comfortable in both roles.

“Oz has become an actor playing the role of doctor,” said Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University, which fact-checks scientific information disseminated to the public.

The problem with Oz is that he can be neither wholly trusted nor dismissed, Schwarcz said. One day, he will offer a medically sound explanation of how hepatitis C attacks the liver, and the next proclaim that the syrup from an Andean root vegetable is the new secret to losing weight.

The claims made on Oz’s show often derive from some small experimental finding, Schwarcz said, “then they run with it and convert what would be a one-yard gain into a 99-yard touchdown.”

Oz declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman, Tim Sullivan, said, “We should have more faith in the viewer.” Oz presents information, Sullivan said, trusting that the audience is sophisticated enough to judge its merits.

“The Dr. Oz Show,” however, featuring props and simulations, more often resembles “Wipeout” than “Charlie Rose.”

In a recent episode, Oz invited two participants to stand behind panels bearing life-size images of cartoonlike women whose bodies were slathered with yellow goop.

“What’s the secret to melt your fat for good?” Oz asked. “It’s not about drastically cutting your calories or exhausting yourself with cardio. … I’m going to show you how to supercharge your hormones so you can melt your fat fast.”

He then hosed the goop off one of the panels.

During the discussion that followed, Oz asked Natasha Turner, a Canadian naturopath, to explain how the supplements she has recommended adjust hormones to dispatch belly fat.

“I had never heard of this before I read Natasha’s book,” Oz said.

“I just don’t understand,” Schwarcz said, “how he can stand there nodding at the absurdities of what some of his guests are saying.”

A distinguished cardiothoracic surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Oz is a Harvard University graduate who earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from its Wharton School. He owns several patents and has written hundreds of articles in medical journals.

Esquire magazine called him “the most important and most accomplished celebrity doctor in history.” Forbes ranks him among the Top 10 most influential celebrities. And Time magazine has put him on the list of the Top 100 most influential people.

His daytime TV show, now in its fifth season, has won three Emmys. His viewership has fallen 23 percent since 2011, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co., while two competitors, “Dr. Phil” and “Ellen DeGeneres,” have gained ground.

Still, “Dr. Oz” ranks fourth among syndicated talk shows and averages 2.7 million viewers a day.

And this month, the Oz media empire, which already runs a website, a blog, and an active Twitter feed, launched a monthly magazine called Dr. Oz The Good Life.

At 52, impeccably dressed, gym-rat fit, and glowing with health, Oz holds himself to rigorous standards. He exercises regularly and fuels his body with blueberries, nuts and spinach-laced smoothies.

When Oz promotes the benefits of raspberry ketones, garcinia cambogia, red palm oil, green coffee extract, strontium and Ayurvedic herbal remedies, he chooses his language carefully, using what Schwarcz calls “weasel words” such as “may,” “might” and “could.”

Oz often notes that it is best to get nutrients from whole foods, and he urges consumers to check the purity and dosage of supplements. But since they are not well-regulated, labels may not be accurate.

Explaining the show’s wild swings from measured to hyperbolic, Sullivan said, “someone that’s adversarial would call it inconsistency. We would call it diversity in programming.”

While Oz’s work as a surgeon – he still operates once a week – demands exquisite precision, his role as a TV celebrity does not.

On May 19, 2012, Oz stopped in Philadelphia during a national tour offering free 15-minute physicals. The event, which drew 300 people, was held at Temple University.

“A television show is a bully pulpit,” Oz said during his address. “It gives you the chance to shout.”

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