Dr. Oz Focuses On Fear, Offers Little Hope
Feb 18, 2011

So there are doctors.  And then there are celebrities.  But in today’s society, we have a new breed of medical influence being packaged by what only TV ratings can create – celebrity doctors.    
One of the most notable of these is Dr. Oz, whose popularity soared after he appeared in over 55 episodes of Oprah.  Now, let’s give credit where credit is due.  Dr. Oz, who ranked third in the 2010 Forbes magazine list of Most Influential Celebrities, is a brilliant opportunist.  Yes, he is very well educated.  Yes, he is a bona fide heart surgeon.  But he is also an skillful entertainer and today’s episode, entitled What Causes Autism? clearly  illustrated that.
What I find most intriguing about this particular show was how Dr. Oz carefully crafted his message, and I quote, “We already know what we think we want to believe.”
Perhaps I was expecting too much.  When I tune in to hear a doctor discuss autism, I hope to hear an informed discussion regarding medical research and scientific advancements that can offer intelligent insight into the causes of autism.  While Alison Singer, of the Autism Science Foundation, was cleverly able to inject specific information regarding current research on autism, Dr. Oz made a deliberate choice to focus on emotions and fear rather than science and data. 
For example, on several occasions, Dr. Oz stated that autism was “a parent’s number one fear” and their “number one nightmare”.  Forgive me, but I wholeheartedly disagree.  My biggest fear as a parent is losing my child.  (Which tragically could happen if I were to refrain from immunizing them against vaccine preventable diseases).  With all due respect to the many people I know with autistic children, I believe the death of a child is worse than a diagnosis of autism.  However, I do recognize that there are many parents who are overwhelmed with the challenges, pressures and worries of raising an autistic child, which is why I had hoped Dr. Oz could offer more hope and less fear. 
Unfortunately, this program did not present much hope.  And with the exception of the studio audience – who were mostly in agreement with one another, but not necessarily in agreement with the majority of medical experts – the show didn’t offer much support either. 
When addressing a topic as emotional and controversial as autism, there are bound to be differences of opinions.  Add to that a discussion of vaccines and you are entering into an entirely new realm of debate.  That is why I had expected Dr. Oz, in his role as a medical professional, to spend a sufficient amount of time explaining the science and research that has failed to show any link between the two.   However, as a celebrity show host, I believe the decision to hold a Jerry Springer style town hall format with an audience that had predetermined opinions of the topic at hand was intentional, sensational, and possibly irresponsible.     

Dr. Ari Brown and Autism Science Foundation President Alison Singer, both appeared as panelists.

While I applaud Dr. Oz for inviting several knowledgeable and professional panelists to participate in this episode (including pediatrician and author Dr. Ari Brown), I was disappointed that he was selective in what information he solicited from them.  By his own admission, his “special” studio audience consisted only of parents with autistic children, as well as parents who were admittedly fearful that their young children might be diagnosed with autism.  By skewing the audience, Dr. Oz sensationalized the fears of a specific segment of parents with predisposed opinions, yet the panelists weren’t given adequate opportunity to fully address the audiences’ concerns.  While this scenario of eliciting questions and leaving viewers guessing can make for a more riveting show, I question whether it serves the viewers well?   Viewers want answers.  Viewers want facts.  But what exactly did Dr. Oz deliver? 
Perhaps you can view the episode yourself and attempt to answer Dr. Oz’s own question, “Where do we stand now?” 
Has the autism conversation moved forward as a result of this show, as Dr. Oz suggests he wants it to?  Does this type of format energize the emotional debate regarding vaccines and autism, while failing to illustrate the science? Are celebrity doctors acting responsibly when they suggest actions that differ from the overwhelming majority of doctors and the AAP?  How can we expect parents to overcome their fears by understanding the science if someone as influential as Dr. Oz fails to do so?  And in regards to autism, is it possible to support families who are dealing with autism if we continue to stir up controversy?  
 I’m not a doctor in real life, but I sure would love to play one on TV.  If I only had that same panel of experts, an hour of talk show time and an unbiased audience, I believe today’s viewers would have learned something entirely different.  But, with Dr. Oz on the job, I guess we’ll never know.

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