Should Mehmet Oz Operate on You?

If you’re a patient facing serious heart surgery — a transplant or a valve replacement, say, anything that requires surgeons to stop the heart from beating while they repair it — you want the most skilled, experienced hands working inside your chest. All other things being equal, nobody wants a part-time doctor working on them.

But what if you could have “America’s Doctor,” Mehmet Oz, operate on you?

Before he became a television celebrity, Dr. Oz was an accomplished surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He still is. He operates there every Thursday, and recently showed New Yorker writer Michael Specter what the inside of someone’s chest looks like when the heart is completely stilled for intricate surgery. It created an arresting scene for Specter’s profile of Oz, which he called, “The Operator.” (You’ll understand why the title is a double entendre when you read the piece, which you can find here.)

The reporter posed a hard question to Eric Rose, the surgeon who trained Oz:

I asked if he would place his confidence in a heart surgeon, no matter how gifted, who operated just once a week, as Oz does. “Well,” he replied, “in general you want a surgeon who lives and breathes his job, somebody who is above all devoted to that.” Again he mentioned Oz’s experience, but when I asked if he would send a patient to Oz for an operation, he looked uncomfortable. “No,” he said. “I wouldn’t. In many respects, Mehmet is now an entertainer. And he’s great at it. People learn a lot, and it can be meaningful in their lives. But that is a different job….”

Celebrity has a magnetic attraction. We all want to be around people who are famous and who dazzle us with their intelligence and personality. But does celebrity mix with surgery, where the surgeon’s skills stay up-to-date only with constant practice?

No, it just doesn’t.

UPDATE: John McKiggan, a top malpractice lawyer in Halifax, Canada, has written a blog on the same subject, pointing to the research on the number of hours of practice — typically 10,000 — that it takes someone in any field to become truly proficient. John says he would also decline Dr. Oz, and he notes that many hospitals have their own version of Dr. Oz, not a TV personality perhaps, but a senior surgeon who has taken on other duties that may have left him or her a bit rusty with the knife.

Bottom line: It pays to know in advance your surgeon’s current work load and experience.

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