JUNE 2008


The Interview

The wonderful land of Dr Oz

(Note: this is a fuller web version of our interview with Dr Oz. A shorter
version appears in the June print edition of NRM.)

Dr Mehmet Oz shot to fame when Oprah Winfrey picked him to be her TV show's health go-to guy. The mild-mannered, easy-on-the-eyes thoracic surgeon instantly captured the palpitating hearts of millions of viewers. He's since parlayed his fame into a crusade to improve the healthcare lot of his fellow Americans. Dr Oz spoke to NRM about those scrubs, the US election, and why the Canadian health system could never work south of the border.

Photo of Dr Oz: James Robinson

The US Democratic leadership race is finally over. I know you’re a Republican, but did you have a favourite between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? Senator Clinton is from New York where I practise. She’s a very very smart woman. Her healthcare plan was probably the best. I have confidence that Senator Obama would also make a superb president. I suspect that Senator Clinton would be more effective, not because she’s a better person, but because she has more experience.

Do you agree with Senator Clinton that Americans need mandatory health coverage? Yes. I think we have to have everyone forced to be part of the health plan, whether we give it to them for free because they can’t pay for it, or we subsidize it or make them pay for it together with their employer. We have to have affordable care for all.

What do you think of the healthcare system we have here in Canada? Well, there’s good and bad. The good news is I think it works for Canada, because Canadians are very different from Americans. Canadians I think are much more willing to queue up and wait in line, they’re also much more polite about that process. America is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so people don’t like to wait. They don’t like having limitations, they want everything. So the Canadian system would feel very restrictive to Americans, but it seems to be quite popular among the Canadians especially the universal coverage element. The part that’s not popular with my Canadian friends and physicians is that because of the way the budgets are designed you end with limitations of services at the end of the year. And physicians I think don’t thrive in that environment. They want to be able to do what they have to do at any time. I think financial issues limit the ability of the healer to do his job.

Oprah’s a staunch Obama supporter, you’re a staunch Republican. Do you two ever argue about politics? We don’t talk politics but I suspect we’d be very close to each other. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. I have a very firm belief in individual rights. I don’t like the government telling me what to do and I believe that people should have free will to pursue their dreams. I’m not socially conservative. I don’t believe that we should be intruding into the private lives of homosexuals and we should not be creating obstacles during the difficult time that women have when trying to terminate a pregnancy. I believe we should make it as easy as possible for women to carry a child to term and give it up for adoption. Today’s climate makes it difficult for women to do what’s best for them and their fetus.

John McCain’s the man for your Repulicans, but who did you like for leader? There were a couple of good candidates. Mitt Romney has proven himself as a capable leader. He’s got some great ideas.

Ever thought about going into politics yourself? Not now. I’m spending a lot of time working with Oprah, trying to help educate Americans and Canadians about health. I think I have a lot of work to do to help us in the Western World realize that the only true salvation to our health care system is for us as individuals to take charge of our well-being. Once I’m done that, we’ll see. I think politics might be the next option.

How did you land the Oprah gig? I had done the show several times and I always enjoyed it. Then I was asked to do whole separate show on CSI, on how we discover bodies and murders. It was well-received and Oprah has asked me back, because she believes that America can learn a lot about their bodies and she’s the perfect person to teach it to them. She’s very authentic leader. I kid her that she’s my teacher -- she’s a very good teacher.

Is she your patient? I do help her take care of herself, but I do it more as a friend than as a doctor. She’ll call me periodically and ask advice, but I don’t see her in my office all the time.

Have you been a teensy bit afraid of Oprah since she tore into fake memoirist James Frey on her show? No. I felt very badly for him -- I think he’s done something that he didn’t want to do and he was too weak to stop it. I’ve made many mistakes myself. When I write things and the data changes then I should be the first one to say ‘Hey, what I’ve written is incorrect.’

If Oprah asked you to have a makeover on the show, would you do it? Oh yeah, sure. To get better fitting scrubs, or a better haircut.

The scrubs are very popular... Yes, they like the scrubs.

Do you and Dr Phil ever compete for Oprah’s attention? No. She’s a very good person, she always gives you her full attention when you’re with her. She’s very caring. She makes sure that the people in her life know that she loves them, and she takes good care of them.

She took you to Africa to see her school. How was that? It was spectacular. I really understood her when we were in Africa, because I saw how passionate she is about teaching those girls. She said she now realized why she never had her own children, because it gave her the ability to have all these children instead. So I thought that was very elegant.

You also travelled to New Orleans and worked with the medical teams in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What was that like? It was life-changing. I had never actually been in a situation like that in this country, with people looking at death without dignity. We’ve always taken it for granted that we’re going to die, but what people want in death is dignity. They want to know that they won’t be lonely, they’ll be in a comforted area in their community with people that love them. And that broke down with Katrina. It was really a tragedy from that perspective. The natural disaster was compounded by the human disaster.

You contributed to former US senator and fellow physician Bill Frist’s campaign. He was roundly criticized for diagnosing Terri Schiavo after watching some video footage of her. The Terri Schiavo incident was a very embarrassing one for this country. Most people feel that families should have the right to make a decision about the death of a loved one without everyone looking in -- and without Congress creating a new session in order to legislate what should be done. We violated their privacy and I think we missed an opportunity to educate Americans about end of life issues. We should not be trying to guess at someone’s diagnosis, because it’s none of our business. The husband was probably right in that case, and he had his legal right to do what’s best for the woman he loved and loved him without people interfering from the outside.

You use scare tactics a lot in your books and on TV. Is that the only way to get people to shape up? I don’t think the gentlemanly approach always works. You have to shake some people up. The reason for that is that our biggest enemy in educating people about their bodies in Canada and in America, is that they think they already know the answers. And they don’t. But they ignore the advice you’re trying to give. So I use the shock tactics as a wake-up call. I say “I know you think you have all the answers, but just look at this, I want you to see you the way I would see it” and most of the time, people say “My goodness, I never knew.”

Why should a doctor recommend the Oz diet over the Atkins diet? The diet we have in our book is the actual medical diet, we didn’t make this up. We basically say eat the food that we have shown in medical practice to be good for you -- fruits, vegetables, grains -- based on the medical knowledge we have. So it’s been rewarding to me to learn not only how many patients have done it, but to hear so many nurses and doctors saying this is exactly what we do. This means I haven’t gone off too far on a ledge. What we try to do with the books is to make the diet understandable and accessible.

You prescribe yoga and massages to your patients. Do your colleagues think it’s flaky? Some of them think it’s flaky. But I do these things myself. They work for me. When I’m tired at the end of the week, I get a massage. When I’m exhausted in the mornings, I do yoga. I know it works for me, so why wouldn’t work for my patients? Why should I treat them any differently than I treat me?

I understand you play mystical Islamic Sufi music for patients during operations. Are you inspired by Sufism? Influenced by it. The biggest influence for my alternative medicine interest are my wife and her family. They are very insightful people. My father-in-law is a very well-known heart surgeon, Gerald Lemole. I saw how they were using it in their own family and to create a healthy environment, and I liked it. In Islam, of course, it makes you realize that you have to have your own connection with the divine, there should be no one between you and God, so it makes you very autonomous, very free thinking. Organized religion are the rules, Sufism and other mystic sects of Christianity and Judaism allow us to transgress those rules and actually begin to enjoy the game.

In a TV doctor dual, who’d win, you or Sanjay Gupta? He’s a good friend of mine. I like him a lot. He’s come on my show a bunch of times and I’ve been on his show. He’s a very, very good doctor, he does a superb job at CNN.

5 things you didn't know about... Mehmet Oz

How one of People's Sexiest Men Alive handles women hitting on him I'm always flattered when it happens, but I don't send out those vibes.

The weirdest alternative medicine he's ever tried Energy medicine, like therapeutic touch and reiki. This is very foreign to me, because as a doctor, I'm used to seeing the data. I'm still sceptical even though my wife is a reiki master.

Turkish delight or doughnuts? Baklava.

Fries or salad (if fries were good for you)? Salad. The french fries taste good to me, they taste good to most people, but in the back of my mind when I'm having a french fry I think, 'In half an hour, I'm not going to feel good.'

He has Oprah's heart She has a beautiful heart. It's pristine. It has no blockages and functions very elegantly.

Interview conducted by Judah Issa



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