Several years ago, Dr. Belinda Birnbaum walked into a room for a checkup to find an angry rash had erupted across the face of one of her patients, a breast cancer survivor battling an autoimmune condition.
The woman burst into tears as soon as she made eye contact with Birnbaum, admitting her skin had broken out after she’d applied a homemade tropical fruit face mask she’d heard about on The Dr. Oz Show, the Montgomery County rheumatologist recalls.
The patient, a breast cancer survivor, had spent months fighting her autoimmune disease, which was at first so severe she could barely rise from a chair or lift her arms above her head. But with persistence through a frustratingly slow recovery, her condition had improved. She’d started to be able to go on walks with her husband again, Birnbaum said.
Except, she had a faint face rash that had been distressing her — so she tried the fruit mask from Dr. Mehmet Oz’s show in hopes of clearing it away. Instead, her skin flared up with orange, itchy bumps, Birnbaum said.
“This strong, brave patient who had been fighting for so many months, who had already been through so much, was absolutely taken down and crushed,” the doctor remembered. “She was humiliated, and she was angry. And she said to me, ‘I thought I could trust him because he’s a doctor.’”
Birnbaum is one of roughly 150 Pennsylvania physicians who have signed a letter denouncing Oz, who’s now running for Pennsylvania Senate, for “spreading misinformation and sharing factually incorrect medical advice” on his Emmy-winning television show. The doctors are instead encouraging voters to support Oz’s opponent, Democrat John Fetterman, in the November election.
Some of these physicians say their condemnation of Oz isn’t hypothetical — it’s borne out of their personal experiences with patients who trusted the celebrity doctor’s show and followed the advice broadcast on it.
The Oz campaign has questioned the validity of the letter, since many of its 150 signers only included their first name and last initial. However, the Fetterman campaign provided a list that had last names for 147 of the physicians, and the USA TODAY Network was able to verify the Pennsylvania medical licenses of all but two.
“As a world-renowned heart surgeon, Dr. Oz is proud to have saved thousands of lives and invested life saving medical devices during his medical career,” Oz campaign spokeswoman Rachel Tripp said in response to the physicians’ letter. “John Fetterman is resorting to these desperate lies because he’s trying to distract voters from his radical policies.”
On Tuesday, Oz shared his own physician’s letter, this one challenging Fetterman to release his medical records. A life-threatening stroke in May has left Fetterman with lingering auditory processing issues, and Oz and a number of media outlets have pressed the Democrat to share more information about his health and prognosis.
“If John Fetterman can’t even be honest and upfront about his own condition, how could he be trusted to represent Pennsylvanians in Washington?” the letter signed by 15 doctors states.
Fetterman this week released an updated report from his doctor, who said the candidate has “no work restrictions” and is ready to serve in public office.
Questionable medical claims
Though the doctors who signed the pro-Fetterman letter represent a small fraction of the commonwealth’s roughly 60,000 licensed physicians, its members say the number is significant given their profession’s general reluctance to wade into politics. Several explained that efforts to restrict abortion access compelled them to get involved in this election.
“We’re supposed to put patients over politics, but politics are now deciding how we’re supposed to treat our patients,” Birnbaum said. “And that’s, that’s when you have to step out and stick your neck out.”
For these physicians, that has meant scrutinizing Oz’s conduct as a doctor, especially since the candidate has emphasized his medical background as a source of credibility on the campaign trail.
A recent Washington Post article analyzed the questionable medical guidance on Dr. Oz’s show, including episodes where Oz spoke about a weight-loss method that involved eating no more than 500 calories a day and taking a pregnancy hormone called “human chorionic gonadotropin,” or HCG.
Oz brought a proponent of this so-called HCG Diet back onto the program even after the Food and Drug Administration had warned companies boosting these weight-loss products that they were breaking the law with their claims, the Post reported.
Medical experts have also flagged Oz’s assertions about endive, red onion and sea bass as a potential “anti-ovarian cancer” diet, with one paper critiquing the claims and arguing that doctors should focus on overall lifestyle choices rather than raising hopes about specific miracle foods.
Oz has described his show as a forum for new ideas and has said he doesn’t agree with the assertions made by every guest. Many times, the Post said, he’d also caution viewers to consult with their personal physicians before experimenting with a product or diet.
However, the physicians supporting Fetterman say he shouldn’t distance himself from the questionable advice that he chose to broadcast to a national TV audience.
Dr. John Butler, another Pennsylvania physician who signed the letter, said he had a stream of patients through the years who have asked him about “magic pills” for weight loss because of statements they’d heard on Oz’s program.
Sometimes the remedies were harmless, he said. Other times, patients would show him the bottles of expensive supplements they’d bought even though they could scarcely afford their regular prescriptions.
“It’s not like people who are following this advice have this unlimited resource,” said Butler, a primary care provider in the Philadelphia area. “They’re pills that they think are going to help them, and that’s dollars that aren’t going into other care.”
Birnbaum said years ago, a patient on a limited income began using a supplement he’d heard about on the Oz show and stopped taking his blood pressure medication, since he didn’t have enough money for both. The patient ended up in the emergency room after his blood pressure destabilized, she said.
Oz’s decision to pitch hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug often used to treat lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, as a possible COVID-19 treatment was also damaging, the physicians say. After former President Donald Trump and other right-wing television personalities seized on the medication as a potential coronavirus wonder drug, people began trying to buy it up and chronically ill patients had trouble filling prescriptions they’d depended on for years.
Researchers later concluded the drug was not effective against COVID-19.
Will voters who rolled their eyes at The Dr. Show discount him as a candidate?
G. Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political analyst and senior fellow in residence at Millersville University, said Oz’s dubious medical claims have certainly given his political rivals ammunition.
Fetterman has derided Oz as “Doc Hollywood” and mocked him with comparisons to quack doctor Nick Riviera from “The Simpsons.” The message Fetterman is trying to get across to Pennsylvania voters is that Oz “is not one of us,” Madonna said.
But Oz, he continued, has also been able to mount his own offensives by attacking Fetterman as soft on crime and for refusing to release comprehensive health records in the wake of his May stroke.
While Oz emerged from the primary bruised, he has managed to narrow the polling gap with his Democratic competitor, Madonna noted. But even as Oz pulls into a near-tie with Fetterman, a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll still showed slightly more than half of Pennsylvania voters say they have an unfavorable view of the doctor.
Candace Vernille, a Pittsburgh resident, said she bought green coffee bean extract supplements years ago after seeing an ad in which Oz seemed to promote them. (Oz has sued companies for using his name and image without permission, but critics say he is still responsible for the exaggerated rhetoric he used by describing weight-loss supplements as potential “miracle” pills.)
Vernille suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that affects hormone levels, and said she struggles to lose weight even if she diets and exercises. Because of Oz’s “credibility and influence,” she decided maybe the supplements could give her a boost and signed up for a 30-day free trial.
But a couple days after the bottle of pills arrived, she noticed the company had already billed her card — weeks before they were supposed to. Suspicious, she threw the supplements away and said she largely forgot about Oz until he announced his candidacy in Pennsylvania.
In her view, Oz’s promotion of supplements like green coffee bean extract took advantage of people who were desperate.
“When you’ve got somebody peddling a diet pill that’s this miracle pill that’s going to help the pounds just melt off of you, there’s also the mental health aspect of it,” said Vernille, who plans to vote for Fetterman. “There’s a cruel aspect of it.”
But not all voters who rolled their eyes at The Dr. Show will discount him as a political candidate.
Jeannie, a Montgomery County voter who declined to give her last name, said she stopped watching the television program after spending what she felt was wasted money on supplements that Oz mentioned.
“I thought, ‘Oh, crap, it never made me any thinner,’” the 73-year-old Republican said.
The supplements might have soured her on the show, but it didn’t discourage her from supporting Oz as a Senate candidate. She said she plans to vote for Oz because she doesn’t like Fetterman, whose casual, hoodie-wearing style rubs her the wrong way.
Though Oz has said he’s anti-abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, his medical credentials lead her to believe that he’d avoid extreme positions if elected to the U.S. Senate.
“I think being a doctor, he would be soft on abortion,” she said.