‘Very serious stakes’: Why Pa.’s doctors are rallying against Oz’s Senate bid

Drs. Mark Lopatin, Karen Feisullin, Benjamin Abella, Belinda Birnbaum, Matthew Magda at a ''Real DOctors Against Oz'' roundtable event in Philadelphia

Drs. Mark Lopatin, Karen Feisullin, Benjamin Abella, Belinda Birnbaum, Matthew Magda at a ''Real Doctors Against Oz'' roundtable event in Philadelphia. (Fetterman campaign)

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Dr. Mehmet Oz has built a career out of leveraging his credentials as a physician.

As he pushes forward in his bid for U.S. Senate, others in his profession are pushing back. Collectively known as the Real Doctors Against Oz, a growing number of physicians across Pennsylvania are speaking out against Oz’s political ambitions.

Their reasoning is simple: Oz’s history as a television physician undermines the trust of their profession, subsequently threatening the health of their patients. They believe if Oz is elected, he would exploit his constituents just as he’s done to his viewers.

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At a recent Real Doctors Against Oz roundtable discussion, Dr. Belinda Birnbaum shared anonymized stories about her patients suffering after they followed the advice of Oz.

One story involved a breast cancer survivor who developed an autoimmune disease that inflamed her lungs and muscles. Her recovery was slow, but she steadily improved. However, she developed a faint rash on her face.

“I walked into my office to see her one day. And there she was — and this was before the pandemic, so she didn’t have a mask on — orange. Orange face, itchy, bumpy, and I looked at her and she burst into tears. And she says to me that she applied a papaya mask to her face, because she thought it would help her rash and do wonders for her skin. And I looked at her and I said, ‘why would you think papaya on your face would do this?’ And she said, ‘I saw it on the Dr. Oz Show,’” Birnbaum said.

The Montgomery County rheumatologist said that her patient was “crushed” over “false hope.” The situation broke her patient.

“And she said to me, ‘I thought I could trust him because he’s a doctor,’” Birnbaum said.

The group of more than 150 Philadelphia-area and Pennsylvania doctors have been active as of late on the campaign trail, criticizing Oz for his medical recommendations and calling him a “major threat to public health.”

Some of the first doctors to take a public stance against Oz were already politically involved. Dr. Val Arkoosh, chairperson of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and former U.S. Senate candidate, was one of the speakers at the first Real Doctors Against Oz events in August.

However, doctors with much less salience and backgrounds in politics are joining the effort to upend Oz’s Senate run.

Dr. Ezekiel Tayler works as a physician, anesthesiologist, and critical care physician in the Philadelphia area. He declined to say which health system he works for.

He first heard about Real Doctors Against Oz from other local physicians and he decided to join.

Dr. Lisa Perriera, Chief Medical Director of The Women’s Centers, speaks out against Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tayler thinks it’s a false sense of security to say that politics has no influence on his oath.

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“As a physician, I took an oath to do no harm to patients. And I think that when people assume that you take that oath, it really just focuses on the medical field itself, and all the ethics surrounding it, but politics influence everything that I can do as a physician. Politics influences the medications that my patients can get, politics influences the health care that my patients have access to,” Tayler said in an interview.

He wasn’t always this involved in politics. He said that the effects of the Trump administration and recent trends within the Republican Party have caused him to get more engaged in recent years.

However, this Senate race has piqued his interest even more. He believes democracy is at stake.

“Having someone like Dr. Oz running for a position in my state certainly would make sense for me to get involved that way, although I do try and promote other Senate races across the country. But Oz is the antithesis to what it is to be a caring, empathetic, and professional healthcare provider,” Tayler said.

He said that in his role as a physician, he has seen the negative impact from “quack” physicians.

“I was in the ICU during the worst of the COVID pandemic, I saw the death. I heard the cries of despair. I consoled families who were begging me to save their family members. And it makes it so much harder to treat patients when you have so-called physicians pushing hydroxychloroquine and it really degrades the patient-physician relationship — that trust,” Tayler said.

Oz supported hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 during the pandemic. He also owns stock in a supplier of the drug.

He believes that these real-world consequences require physicians like himself to put their finger on the other end of the scale.

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, speaks at House of Glory Philly CDC in Philadelphia, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Ryan Collerd)

“For someone who already doesn’t care about what harm making statements to patients will do to them, to put them on a national platform to give them that kind of power is so dangerous. And so I have to do everything that I can to try to prevent that from happening,” Tayler said.

Dr. Benjamin Abella, an emergency physician in Philadelphia, is no stranger to political activism. In October 2021, he co-organized Philadelphia’s Bans Off Our Bodies March in support of reproductive rights.

His decision to join Real Doctors Against Oz was motivated by threats to abortion rights from the Republican Party.

“This whole movement to criminalize reproductive health care and criminalize abortion has been very disturbing. As an emergency physician, I take care of many women who are in all sorts of complicated predicaments with reproductive health. And they need to hear their options,” Abella said in an interview.

He added that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s campaign for U.S. Senate has been clear and concise in his support for abortion rights.

“Conversely, Dr. Oz has wavered tremendously over the years and currently appears to be against reproductive health as we view it. Although this has not always been his position, he seems to, in many cases, blow with the winds. And I think this is one of the generally disturbing things that I feel Dr. Oz embodies, which is he doesn’t seem to share our core values as medical providers, values of truth, transparency, sticking to the science and the evidence,” Abella said.

He said that Oz’s background is full of “ethical transgressions” and the peddling of harmful treatments and therapies.

From Oz’s role in animal abuse allegations to his testimony during a 2014 Capitol Hill hearing regarding consumer protection, the Senate candidate has been under increased scrutiny for his actions over the years.

“For many years, I feel that physicians have had an attitude that politics was somehow beneath them, that they wanted to remain aloof or separate from our political conversations. But I think that it’s changing and I very much agree with that change,” Abella said.

To combat Oz’s campaign, the group of doctors has been holding press conferences, speaking as a collective on social media, and going door-to-door to talk to voters.

Tayler said that it feels like a separate job outside of his normal work duties.

“I’m very, very involved with canvassing on the weekends, so I’ll door knock for down ballot candidates. I have local candidates in my area. I’m trying to turn [Pennsylvania] blue as well,” Tayler said.

Despite the long hours, Abella said that their work is far from over.

“This is a very serious election with very serious stakes that will affect many people in Pennsylvania. And we want our patients to understand that and so we’ve been active with whatever tools we have and we will continue to remain active until the election,” Abella said.

Pennsylvania’s Senate selection will likely have a huge impact several major issues including abortion and voting rights, climate change, and gun control.

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