Although I never realized this reality until recently, most of my adult life has been invested in training for the coronavirus pandemic. As a cardiac surgeon, my highlight reel never included media, but after opening one too many chests with a band saw became overwhelmingly disheartening (figuratively and literally) I realized many of the indications for surgery could have been prevented through lifestyle changes. Much of America had not gotten the message on health because our medical community had not widely delivered the goods, especially to underserved populations who watch network TV. As a professor at Columbia, I could continue reaching patients one by one in my operating room, or try to spread critical health information more efficiently and to more people through television and other media.
Now I am using every tactic learned as a surgeon, father and TV host to carry out my life’s mission of educating, healing and informing the public. After thousands of heart operations, dozens of “Oprah” show appearances and more than a decade hosting “The Dr. Oz Show,” I have learned that people change based on what they feel more than what they know. They desire practical “news that they can use” over erudite salon talk. They need to like — in order to adopt — accessible solutions in a complex field filled with gloom and doom. All three insights pepper my coronavirus messages.
As the public is understandably scared about the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., we are comforted by knowledge and preparation. I have studied the real risks to our species, and the biggest threat is infection. Historically, we have lost large portions of our population from an enemy — like infection — we could not see or understand and are hard-wired to panic during its assault. Pushing facts over fear, reason before reaction, and preparedness without panic is an effective salve to these emotional wounds.
“The Dr. Oz Show” started during the swine flu epidemic of 2009. Two years later we helped launch the movie “Contagion,” which eerily simulates the COVID-19 pandemic. America knew the coronavirus pandemic was coming because Hollywood precisely showed us.
Perhaps this time we can learn from the crisis, especially as the ripple effects of the largest quarantines in human history shutter businesses and nudge us toward a global recession. For the first time in modern memory, the entire planet is speaking about the same issue with the same perspective. Doctors on television need to help shape this script. We have the ability to translate dense policy documents, scientific manuscripts and coronavirus mathematical modeling into accessible messaging, using our programs to distribute easy-to-digest recommendations and concerns. Social media helps us reach even larger audiences.
We need health media destinations like my show that viewers trust so experts and influencers can share their wisdom with the public. And we need the health community speaking with one voice. I have brought together our nation’s health leaders, ranging from the surgeon general to the world’s best epidemiologists to our most trusted TV news doctors, on my stage during this crisis to educate and calm people.
As a metric of success, we are all proud that the new normals are fist bumps (which spread only 10% of the bacteria that a firm handshake does) and social distancing, which brings us together by keeping us apart. Americans now wash their hands like surgeons, which is the ultimate DIY vaccine and reduces infections by up to 50%. Helping Jimmy Fallon share my hand-washing technique empowers his very different audience to protect mine. Americans are accepting what historically seemed like draconian measures to suffocate this pandemic, because we are all in this together.
Many in the entertainment industry are on forced hiatus, including some of my favorite TV shows. At this time, I will keep on filming my show so we can focus on coronavirus coverage for as long as possible while keeping the safety of my staff and crew top of mind. If I am forced to stop educating and encouraging Americans to stand firm in the blistering onslaught of the coronavirus, I will head to my New York-Presbyterian Hospital office. Both jobs can save lives, and both need to be manned until the last possible moment.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon, a New York Times best-selling author and the 10-time Emmy-winning host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” currently in its 11th season of syndication.