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Posted by Michael Finkelstein | April 30th, 2014

Americans Deserve Open-Minded Discourse on Medical Options

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on April 30, 2014.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), half of America suffers from at least one chronic illness; chronic illness causes 70 percent of deaths in the United States each year; and the percentage of children and adolescents with chronic illness has quadrupled since the 1960s. Among highly-industrialized nations, the United States ranks only average or below average for health, despite spending on medical care 16 percent of America’s wealth — more than that of any other nation worldwide. Not surprisingly, a whopping 3/4 of Americans believe that our health care industry is facing a “crisis.” Americans are sick and tired of being sick and tired, and the medical establishment is responding inadequately to the demand for more effective treatment.

For the most part, current medical treatment comes in the form of pills and procedures, which can save lives in acute emergencies but are inadequate for those interested in healing chronic illness or preventing it in the first place — the latter of which makes up about 80 percent of a doctor’s patient load. Conventional medicine is well-intended, of course, and numerous aspects are beneficial. Most notably, for an acute, life-threatening emergency, we just can’t beat it. When someone has a heart attack, brain hemorrhage, or ruptured appendix, it is not the time for a doctor-patient consult on nutrition, meditation, and exercise. I am in no way suggesting that we through the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly, there are critical medical interventions that we want to keep in play.

As medical professionals, however, we need to think straight and accept that 15-minute exams and quick fix treatments usually do not work for complicated and chronic medical ailments. Often, they not only overlook the root of a problem, but they further exacerbate that problem by adding to the mix the side effects of medication and/or complications of surgery. In addition, quick fixes typically do not have a lasting effect on the psycho-emotional sense of wellness that fundamentally determines the quality of our lives. The American public is well aware of this reality, and it is hungry for alternatives.

Against the backdrop of a profit-driven health care system — where self-interested pharmaceutical companies fund research studies on medical therapies; where doctors routinely prescribe drugs off-label, without credible scientific research verifying the efficacy of those uses; where the bottom line of insurance companies determines the course of treatment for patients; and where the lack of financial kickback leads to the under-funding, and therefore gross under-representation, of scientific studies on potentially curative holistic therapies — Mehmet Oz, M.D. boldly has stepped into the health care gap, bringing to the public an open-minded exploration of and dialogue about cutting-edge and potentially more effective medical solutions.

Not only is it understandable that The Dr. Oz show is wildly popular, but it is not surprising that Dr. Oz has come under fire — most recently, from doctors across the country asserting that Columbia University’s affiliation with him is “unacceptable.”

Indeed, throughout history, medical pioneers have come under vicious attack. Take the illustrative case of 19th century Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that hospital mortality could be drastically reduced if doctors washed their hands and disinfected their instruments between patients. With no scientific evidence backing up his claim, and with the idea of sterilization flying in the face of conventional medical practice at that time, Semmelweis not only lost his medical license but was committed to an insane asylum, where he was beaten to death at the age of 47. Decades later, his then-radical assertions were validated by scientific research, and today the medical community would be outraged if sterilization was not practiced by a doctor.

While science is comforting, it is neither unbiased nor foolproof. In the past few decades alone, scientific research led scores of Americans to believe that fat and cholesterol were the enemies of heart health, only to do a complete about-face. As noted in “The Government’s Bad Diet Advice,” a recent New York Times article, “For two generations, Americans ate fewer eggs and other animal products because policy makers told them that fat and cholesterol were bad for their health. Now both dogmas have been debunked in quick succession.”

Keep in mind that the great scientists of the middle ages thought the world was flat and that anyone who thought otherwise was ridiculed. Which all goes to say, when we rigidly adhere to what science has proven or disproven up to a certain point in history, refusing to even consider other possibilities — despite the consistent track record of science reversing itself over time — we are not healthy skeptics. Instead, we are cynical dogmatists. When we attempt to impose our rigid dogma onto open-minded and compassionate physicians — especially those who, like Dr. Oz, are willing to risk their reputations so as to uncover effective solutions for the scores of people who are suffering — we are furthermore arrogant and heartless.

Scientific research follows in the footsteps of human experience. In recent times, this experience has demonstrated that the reductionist paradigm of conventional medicine — which attempts to simplify one of the most complex systems imaginable, namely the human being — is failing. The paradigm is breaking apart, as its limitations and drawbacks increasingly brought to light. While the public certainly does not want quackery, and while it prefers science when there is evidence, it needs and deserves knowledge about all the treatment options available.

Dr. Oz uses his extraordinary intelligence and mass appeal to illustrate the excitement of a world with numerous possibilities for healing. Though some of his claims may deservedly come under scrutiny, I think he is making a larger point that should neither be ignored nor ridiculed: He is challenging us all, medical professionals and laypeople alike, to think outside the box, in this case, the conventional medical toolbox. To use a home improvement analogy, Dr. Oz is saying that if a hammer is the only tool we own, that does not make it an appropriate tool for fixing a leaky faucet. Instead, it means we need to expand our awareness of the instruments available to us, and we need to add more tools to our collection.

Given the obviously urgent need to provide new and effective solutions for the public’s common and chronic health challenges, I question the judgment of those who condemn Columbia University for affiliating with Dr. Oz. I similarly applaud the university for supporting the practice of a colleague who has the interest, courage, and wherewithal to cultivate an understanding of the spectrum of medical options available to the American public.

To be perfectly transparent, I am a former medical school classmate and current professional colleague of Dr. Oz. While some may say that puts into question or altogether disqualifies my opinion on this matter, I propose that the issue at hand has nothing to do with Dr. Oz or, by extension, his relationship to those who know him; instead, it has everything to do with the flow and control of information in the medical establishment. For decades, the politics and profit of conventional medicine have squelched the intelligence and creativity of medical professionals, with the implicit threat hanging over our heads that we will be discredited or even lose our licenses, if we do not tow the party line. Dr. Oz is simply the latest to break rank, take a stand, and feel the heat.

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