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Dr. Val, The Traveling Physician: Living La Vida Locums, Part 2

On Assignment In California Vineyard

This post is the continuation of my personal thoughts and reflections about what it’s like to work as a Locum Tenens (traveling temp) physician.

Q: Where are the most favorable locums jobs?

This is an interesting question and depends a little bit upon personal taste and priorities. While most locums physicians choose their work based on location (see this nice survey of locum priorities), more experienced locums docs choose their work based on circumstance. What I mean is that it’s more important WHY the hospital needs you, than where the hospital is physically located. It only takes one really bad assignment to learn that lesson the hard way. For instance, if a hospital is recruiting a locum tenens physician because the place is so bad that no one will stay in the job, then I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t matter how nice the city/town/countryside is nearby, you will not enjoy your time there.

Positive prognostic indicators for a good locums assignment include:

1. The person you’re filling in for needs vacation coverage or are on maternity/paternity leave. They are happy with their job and are eager to come back.

2. The hospital is undergoing a growth phase and needs help staffing new wings/wards.

3. The hospital is operating in the black but happens to be in a rural area where it is challenging to find enough physicians to meet the patient needs.

Red flags:

1. The medical director/staff physician “doesn’t have time” to talk to you about the assignment before you commit to doing it.

2. There is more than a second-long pause when you ask the medical director why he/she would want to work there as a locums.

3. The person you’re filling in for was fired due to incompetence or negligence.

4. The person you’re filling in for is on the verge of a nervous break down from overwork, and a locums agency was called in to prevent implosion/explosion type scenarios.

5. There have been multiple staff (nursing usually) strikes at the hospital in the past 6 months.

7. The group with whom you would work is not culturally diverse – and you can imagine having difficulty gaining acceptance by them.

In my experience, you can enjoy living anywhere temporarily if the people and circumstances are pleasant. A nice post-work dinner/coffee with friendly, competent staff – even in a “backwater” setting – trumps a solo trip to a high end, big city restaurant when you are emotionally and mentally exhausted by the misery of a bad hospital. Trust me on this.

As one locums hospitalist put it: “Generally I’ve found the rural hospitals to be the nicest, especially in the midwest. But I’m never going back to South Dakota in the winter.”

Q: How can I negotiate the best salary?

First of all, you need to know that this is a negotiation. When I first started, I just assumed the salary I was offered required a binary response: “Yes, I’ll accept the position,” or “No I’ll keep looking for other opportunities.” That’s why I’m a physician and not a business woman, I guess! Just ask my husband.

Anyway, after a few experiences of getting paid a lower salary than my peers at the same job, I realized the error of my ways. In many cases you can lobby for up to 25% higher pay rate, so you should keep that in mind. In summary, here is where the salary “wiggle room” is:

1. How much overhead your agency charges. Remember the “platinum” agency I referred to in my last post? If you’re working with one of the agencies that is known to be “expensive” then they have more money that they could share with you. If you’re working with a budget agency who competes based on low overhead fees (such as 20% above your base salary rate), then you’ll never get more than $5-10 more/hour from them.

2. If you have a good track record. Once you’ve proven yourself to be an excellent physician, well-liked by the hospital staff where you’ve been assigned, the agency is going to want to keep sending you to new assignments because you’re more likely to get requests to return and will stay longer at each gig. The agency (and the recruiters) make money based on how many hours you bill, so they’d rather send a “sure thing” to a new client than an unknown. They will be more likely to up your salary to seal the deal, knowing they’ll probably get more hours with you in the long run.

3. How desperate the client/hospital is. This is sad to say, but desperate clients will pay higher rates to fill a need. If you’re being offered an unusually high salary for a certain assignment, don’t rejoice, worry (see notes above about “red flags.”)

4. If you bundle. Some enterprising primary care locums docs get together to negotiate group rates. That means, if you have a friend or two who can agree to travel together to a particular place, the agency can pay a higher salary to each of you because they’re getting a larger volume of hours overall. This works really well for internal medicine locums, for example, where hospitals often need multiple docs at a time. It’s actually a brilliant plan, because the people who do it are already sympatico, they have similar work ethics, can share call, sign out to each other, have built in friends to enjoy after work adventures, and arrive as a well-oiled machine. I think this is probably the future of primary care locums. However, if you’re like me (a specialist in a small field) there’s no way to bundle because no hospital ever needs more than one of you at a time. ;-)

5. If you take longer assignments. This stands to reason. If you are going to be working for months (rather than weeks) at a certain hospital, then you have more room to negotiate a larger hourly rate based on the volume principle I described above.

Q: How do locums agencies decide how to match you with a given job opportunity?

Based on my experience, the agencies’ order of priorities for matching physicians with clients are:

1. Whoever is available and answers their phone first. The Locums world is very dog-eat-dog for the agencies. It’s a daily race to see who can present physicians to fill needs the fastest.  Hospitals are looking for the lowest cost solution to their staffing gaps, and will shop multiple agencies for the same positions at once. The agency who brings the first acceptable C.V.s wins the work. Sometimes when there is controversy over which agency gets the job, the client has to review email time/date stamps to verify which came first. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. So… if your recruiter’s voice sounds a little tense, you’ll understand what’s going on in his/her world. And if you’re hungry for locums work, be sure to respond promptly for consideration.  That being said, once you’ve established a track record with a few agencies, you’ll have turn away business year-round (especially in primary care).

2. Client preference. Once your C.V. has been presented to the client, they will choose their preferred candidate (if there is more than one option). Usually, they are looking for someone local or whomever will generate the lowest travel expenses. I wish that clients delved a little deeper than that, but my experience is that cost trumps coolness for them most of the time. And when I say “coolness” I mean – wouldn’t you rather have a candidate who writes well, has an unusual background (say – someone who has built medical websites and has been a food critic and cartoonist? Ahem?) than just another chem major straight out of IM residency? Apparently most would say no thanks. Just give me the cheaper one.

3. If they know and like you. Let’s say there are two equally qualified physicians for the same position already screened and signed up for work at a certain agency. If one of you has a track record of being flexible and easy to work with (rather than a demanding, entitled brat – like a few doctors you may know) then the recruiter will put the “nice” person’s CV on top and market you more strongly to the client. Why? Because she doesn’t want to receive whiny phone calls every other day during your assignment about how you don’t like the hospital food. The recruiters have “quality of life” issues too. If you’re lucky and you develop a good, long term relationship with your recruiter, they’ll probably even do YOU a favor and give you a head’s up about upcoming opportunities at the “good” hospitals. And we all know what that means.

4. Whoever will take the lowest hourly rate. In the end, it’s still all about the Benjamins so if there are 2 equally qualified physicians who are similarly “non whiny” then if one will work more days or at a lower rate, then they are more likely to get the job (due to recruiter influence on client preference). But given the large number of positions and the small number of locums to choose from, this game is 80% about who’s available first. Then the rest of the variables follow.

Q: What is the licensing and credentialing process like? How do I make it easier?

The state licensing and hospital credentialing is the most painful administrative part of the whole locum tenens assignment process. If you’re considering an opportunity in say, North Dakota, then you’ll need to get a state license there (Unless you already have one?) as well as passing the scrutiny of the rural hospital credentialing committee where you’ll be working. And yes, everyone seems to want original copies of the intern year you did 15 years ago at the hospital that has since closed. You feel my pain?

There is good news and bad news about this. The good news is that the Locums agencies have hired staff to complete the medical license and credentialing paperwork for you. That is part of the “value” they bring to you as an agency. The bad news is that some of their staff can’t spell. Or they get the chronological order of your residency/fellowship years wrong, etc. thus generating MORE work for you in the long run, correcting errors rather than filling in blanks.

The middle road is to fill out the paperwork correctly yourself the first time, and then offer copies to the agency staff for future licensure/credentialing. They can transcribe better than synthesize, so this seems to be the best way to go, IMO.

Hospital credentialing is nuanced, and depends on the culture of the local hospital in terms of how many references they require and how much documentation detail they request. Some hospitals are swift and lean, others comb through your background as if you are a likely convicted felon.

That being said, one thing is certain – if you plan to work several different locums assignments your referrers are going to be nagged TO DEATH. Everyone needs 2-3 professional references who will be called/contacted mercilessly, first by the Locums agency to make sure you’re not a “problem person” (as described in Part 1), then by the hospital who is considering hiring you (not that they’ve committed yet), then by the credentialing committee (if you pass approval in the first round), then by the state licensing body. So for every potential locums assignment, your professional reference will likely be contacted 4 times, and asked to vouch for you verbally or on paper/via fax. Imagine how many assignments you’ll do in a year and the math gets pretty scary. Be sure your references are ok with all this attention… and give them fair warning. If you can, spread the pain and broaden your reference base.

Q. What advice do you have for Locums agencies?

1. Physicians talk. Whatever sneaky deal-making you’re doing (such as paying people different rates for the same gig or getting a 50% premium at a desperate hospital and then not sharing it with us in salary upgrade) is going to come to light at some point, so keep your nose clean. Please be honest about problem hospitals and work conditions. I know that clients mislead you about work conditions and expectations so as to lure locums to their facility – but try to go the extra mile to figure out in advance if the doctors are really going to be asked to see 16 patients a day or 26 patients a day. Because if we get to the site and we’re being abused and overworked, we associate the negative experience with the agency that put us there. Then you try to wheedle and cajole us into finishing the assignment based on the contract we signed so you can make your cut. Meanwhile we’re putting our careers in danger because we can’t do a thorough job and might miss something important. Not good for physician retention. Better yet, just say no to crisis clients. The money isn’t worth it.

2. Treat us right and you’ll make more money in the long run. I know you’re under pressure to save money on our travel and hotels, but you also have some flexibility in the room rate that you’ll consider. Put us in a nicer hotel for a few bucks extra per night and the whole experience will seem a little brighter. Put us on the preferred rental car program so we don’t have to wait for 2 hours in a rental car line after a full day of cross-country travel. Upgrade us to a full size car rather than the beige Corolla we have to live in for months.  These little things end up costing you only a few hours of our total billing, but make your agency our go-to employer.

3. Pay us on time. It’s so simple, and costs you nothing. If an agency takes 3-4 months to pay me for an assignment, and then the billing is inaccurate (missing hours)… I’m going to choose another agency next time. Your value to me is partly in the ease of payment – a direct deposit a week from when I fax my time sheets sends me the message that you have your act together and are respectful of my time. Making me sift through miss-billed records from half a year ago is just not acceptable.

4. Try to understand why we whine. Locums work is not easy. We are often separated from our friends and family, in an unfamiliar setting, learning complicated hospital processes with patients who are sick and dying. We don’t know if the nurses or consultants are competent while we ourselves are under intense scrutiny until the staff gets to know us. We have to build trust, navigate complicated electronic medical records systems, satisfy hospital coding and billing demands, and keep a ward full of patients (with their team of specialists whom we’ve yet to meet) on the path to healing. All this, and we are legally responsible for everything that goes on in the lives of those under our care. When we get home to our Days Inn at the end of our 15 hour shift in our beige Toyota Corolla to find their exercise equipment broken and the lobby overrun with monster-truck rally participants, we may be a tad whiny. Please don’t think ill of us for that. Just do what you can to help us feel better. We, and our patients, will thank you.

***

Dr. Jones is available on a consulting basis through Better Health LLC. She may be reached at val.jones@getbetterhealth.com

Dr. Val, The Traveling Physician: Living La Vida Locums

On Assignment In Idaho

It’s been a couple of months since my last post because I’ve been traveling around the United States working as a locum tenens (in Latin, “place holder” – a more elegant name than “temp”) physician. We’ve all heard of traveling nurses, but more and more physicians are also “living la vida locums,” as it were. There are actually over 100 agencies who find/provide temporary physician coverage for hospitals who need to fill gaps in their full timers’ schedules. You can find out more about these agencies at their trade organization site, the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations (NALTO).

For those of my peers who’ve been curious about locums work, but haven’t tried it, I thought I’d provide you with some personal thoughts and insights in the form of Q&A. Please feel free to ask your own questions in the comments section and maybe we can generate a nice, interdisciplinary discussion about locums work. I’d love to hear from others who have worked locums!

Q: Why should I work as a locum tenens physician?

If you don’t mind travel and are a fairly adaptable individual (i.e. can learn new EMR systems, staff idiosyncrasies, and navigate hospital politics without excessive angst), then you can expect to make at least 33% more in salary working as a locum (with professional liability insurance, housing and travel covered included). In addition, you have no administrative or teaching responsibilities, coding/billing hassles, or staff management issues. You’re paid an hourly rate for a minimum number of hours, with overtime negotiable. You get to see different parts of the country, and can control where you go and how much you work. (E.g. Summers in Sonoma, winters in Florida… not a bad lifestyle choice.)

Q: What kind of physicians do locums work?

In my experience, there are four kinds of people who do locums work: 1) Retirees – those who have essentially retired from full time medicine and want to keep their hand in clinically without overwhelming responsibilities and work hours 2) Salary Seekers – those who want to make 33-50% more salary and don’t care where they live to do it (they work 22 days/month or more as a locums doc) 3) Dabblers – those who want to work part time because they are busy with another job or family responsibilities and 4) Problem People – those who have personality issues and/or a legal history that make it difficult to hold down a regular job.

I don’t know the relative numbers of these 4 subtypes of physicians who do locums, but I’d guess that 20% are Retirees (Rs), about 10% are Salary Seekers (SS’s), 60% are Dabblers (D’s), and 10% are Problem People (PP’s). I’m a D, and I have met Rs, SSs, and PPs on the work circuit. I’ve also spent time talking to internists and specialists who work as locums physicians so I have an idea of what others outside my specialty are up to.

Q: What’s the difference between locums agencies?

Each locums agency has its own “corporate culture” and some are more attentive to their physicians than others. For example, when you’re traveling en route to an assignment and your flight gets cancelled on a weekend, you suddenly realize how nice it is to have a responsive agency to help with travel triage. Choosing an agency is more than just finding the one that offers the best hourly wage, it’s about how they choose and negotiate with clients (hospitals), how many staff they have to help with payroll and travel, and if the recruiters themselves are patient and attentive. All of this is primarily learned by trial and error – alas. And I think it’s probably time to create a “Yelp” destination of sorts for physicians who are interested in locums work. I wish I had had one!

That being said, what I’ve learned is that agencies vary A LOT in what they offer you and that there is usually about 25% wiggle room in hourly rate negotiation, especially for highly-sought after specialties such as Internal Medicine. In one case, a client (hospital) confirmed to me that two different locums agencies presented the same candidate to them – one was charging $90/hour more for the physician, but the physician had been quoted the same hourly rate by both agencies.

One would think that there would be an advantage to being represented by the “Platinum level” locums agency because they’d negotiate higher pay rates for you, but what happens is that they negotiate high pay rates and then don’t pass it along. In the end, the only hospitals that use those companies are ones who’ve exhausted every other avenue. So if you work for a Platinum agency, you end up with an average salary working in the most difficult situations (i.e. where no one else would go and the hospital, in an act of desperation, had to pay through the nose for you.) In addition, I’ve had a Platinum agency take 3 months to pay me, whereas another agency regularly turned my time sheet into direct pay in 7 days.

So be forewarned – the biggest, shiniest agency might not be your best bet.

Unfortunately, smaller agencies (who may be more generous with salary rates) sometimes suffer from skeleton crew staffing and fall short of being able to triage travel disasters and manage client-related problems (e.g. the hospital said you’d see 12 patients a day but when you arrive they ask you to see 24) as needed.

When it comes to a locum agency, you want someone who’s not too big, not too small, and where you can establish a relationship with a recruiter who is responsive and smart. I cannot stress this enough. Your recruiter is your lifeline while you are on the job. Recruiters don’t just spend their time finding physicians to fill positions, they are the key point of contact between you and the hospital where you work. Their role is to lobby for you, and keep the hospital accountable for your work load and work environment. If the hospital promised that you’d only need to see X number of patients/day, then your recruiter is the one to hold them to that standard. If you are concerned about patient safety because staff members are incompetent in some way, then (believe it or not) your recruiter will convey those concerns to the hospital and get the problem solved.

So overall, your locums experience depends on the corporate culture of your agency, the size and number of travel/credentialing staff they have available 24/7, and the quality of recruiter assigned to your case.

In my next post I’ll cover the following questions:

Q: Where are the most favorable locums jobs?

Q: How can I negotiate the best salary?

Q: How do locums agencies decide how to match you with a given job opportunity?

Q: What is the licensing and credentialing process like? How do I make it easier?

The Top 10 Things We Should Tell Our Patients About Weight Loss

It is estimated that in seven years from now, half of all Americans will suffer from one or more chronic diseases, a majority of which are weight related. The American Medical Association recently declared that obesity itself is a disease. Obesity advocacy groups say that this move will lead to better health outcomes by providing more treatment options, preventative programs and education, as well as better reimbursement for treating individuals fighting obesity.

But what do patients need to know about weight loss?  The good news is that a  medically healthy weight does not require a very low percent body fat.

Weight loss for health – not for appearance – comes with a different (and in many cases much less demanding) set of recommendations. So for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll focus on key evidence-based advice for patients at risk for weight related disease…

1. You don’t need to lose that much weight to realize substantial health benefits.

A five to ten percent loss of body weight can lower risk for heart disease and other killers. For obese patients, even a modest weight reduction can have significant health benefits. An eleven pound reduction in weight leads to a fifty-eight percent decrease in the chance of developing diabetes. Even just losing two pounds reduces the risk of diabetes by sixteen percent.

2. Most people who succeed at losing weight (and keeping it off) do so with a combination of diet and exercise.

According to the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) (a database of more than ten thousand Americans who have successfully kept at least 30 pounds off for a year or more):

  • Ninety-eight percent of Registry participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.
  • Ninety-four percent  increased their physical activity.

3. Walking is the most common form of exercise reported by successful weight loss subjects.

According to the NWCR, their study participants’ most frequently reported form of activity was walking. That’s not to say that other forms of activity (such as interval and strength training) aren’t an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but it is encouraging to know that brisk walking is a simple, affordable, and easily accessible place to start for most people.

4. Exercise itself (even without weight loss) is one of the most powerful preventive health interventions available.

Physical exercise has been shown to reduce blood pressuredecrease the risk for type 2 diabetes, strokes, certain types of cancer, and heart diseaseimprove arthritis symptoms and sleep disorders, and reduce erectile dysfunction, anxiety and depression. No pill or procedure can come close to providing all these amazing health benefits.

5.  Diet is more important than exercise for shedding pounds of fat.

As I often tell my patients, “You can’t outrun your mouth.” Which means – you can eat far more calories in a short period of time than you can ever hope to burn with exercise. For this reason, diet plays a larger role in weight loss than exercise.

6. It’s more important to lose fat than to lose it by following a particular diet.

If diet is so important for losing weight, the next logical question is “Which diet is best?” Interestingly, the answer may be – whichever one you’ll stick to. Now, of course there are some diets that are more nutritionally sound than others – but the benefits of fat loss are so great, that health benefits are achieved even on relatively “unhealthy” diets. In a landmark diet comparison study, Michael Dansinger showed that study participants achieved similar benefits (such as improved cholesterol profiles, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers) from adhering to any of four vastly different diet regimes ranging from low fat, high carb to low carb, high fat.

7. The healthiest diets limit refined carbohydrate and animal fat intake, while maximizing fruit, vegetable, and healthy fats and protein.

I’ve just argued that a variety of diets work if you stick to them, and adherence is the key to fat loss, and even modest amounts of fat loss can have substantial health benefits. So does it really matter which diet you choose? In the long run, yes. Research has shown that there are some common nutritional principles that result in optimal health. The key ones are:

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates as much as possible (such as sugar, fructose, and white flour/rice products). Unrefined carbs (such as whole grains, flax, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, berries, and cruciferous veggies) are an important part of a healthy diet.
  • Avoid animal fats (trans fats). Healthy fats such as olive, fish and nut oils are preferable.
  • Eat a diet rich in fiber, fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose lean protein sources, including beans, eggs, chicken, fish, pork, yogurt, and fish.
  • Limit alcohol intake and opt for water as your main source of hydration fluid.

8. Aim to lose 1 pound per week.

Cutting out approximately 500 calories from your daily caloric needs (established with a calorie calculator or by personal trial-and-error) is about as much as people can tolerate comfortably over periods of time. Diet adherence decreases as deficits exceed 500 calories per day.

9. The optimal, minimal amount of exercise for the average American adult is about one hour of moderate intensity exercise each day.

There is some disagreement on optimal exercise duration – some groups recommend half an hour per day (American College of Sports Medicine), others (such as the Institute of Medicine) a full hour. A review of the various positions and guidelines is available here. In terms of types of activity, there is general consensus that strength training twice a week should be added to moderate daily aerobic activity for best results.

10. You probably don’t need to take any vitamin or nutrition supplements.

Contrary to popular belief, most Americans (even with their sub-optimal eating habits) meet all of their basic dietary requirements with food intake. Non FDA-approved weight loss supplements have not been found to provide lasting benefits for weight loss and are generally ineffective and sometimes dangerous.

Weight loss drugs and surgical procedures may be effective last resorts for those who have failed to achieve results with diet and exercise. New prescription anti-obesity drugs and FDA-approved over-the-counter options are effective at helping patients shed extra pounds, but often come with unwanted side effects such as anal leakage and adverse cardiac events.

In conclusion, obesity underlies most of America’s chronic disease burden but can be reversed with modest weight loss through diet and exercise modifications. Patient adoption of long-term lifestyle changes are challenged by economic factors (e.g. healthy food “deserts” in inner cities), sedentary lifestyles, poor urban planning, excessive fast food and sugary beverage consumption, increasing portion sizes, and high tech conveniences that reduce energy expenditure, among other factors.

Patients are more likely to begin weight loss programs if recommended to do so by their physician, though studies suggest that they take advice more seriously if their physician is not overweight or obese herself. In our efforts to treat obesity, it may be especially important to lead by example.

Runner’s Diarrhea: A Summertime Favorite?

A blogger friend of mine referred me to an article about a female runner struggling with gastrointestinal distress. She asked for advice regarding how to prevent the “runner’s trots” and felt fairly mystified regarding its cause. Since up to half of runners face this problem at some point (especially women), I thought I’d post some advice that comes from experience… ahem.

The urge to use the restroom during exercise is caused by increased intestinal motility, likely triggered by any (or all) of the following:  jostling of internal organs, relative intestinal ischemia (decreased oxygen getting to the intestines as blood is diverted to the muscles for work and to the skin to cool the body), dehydration, and adrenaline-related anxiety/stress hormones. I’ve noticed that hot weather greatly increases the likelihood of runner’s diarrhea as it contributes to additional blood diversion as well as dehydration through excessive sweating. Basically, don’t be surprised if you need to plan your summer runs around bathroom stops.

That being said, there are a few things that can decrease the urgency and frequency of this unpleasant intestinal drama:

1. Watch what you eat before your run – avoid fiber, caffeine, fake sugar, or anything that generally makes YOU have to move your bowels more frequently (milk and/or soy products are a culprit for some). Ideally, these things should be avoided up to 12-24 hours before you run.

2. Stay hydrated. Get ahead of the game by drinking a liter of water before your run and continue to hydrate during exercise (as appropriate for the climate and your effort level.)

3. Run at a slower pace if the weather is hot. I often find that dropping the pace by a minute or two per mile can magically reduce the intestinal symptoms.  Interval training can help you challenge your speed limits while offering active recovery periods for your body to cool down and let your gut chill out.

4. Run in the morning when it’s cooler and you’ve had less to eat. Running after a day full of eating is looking for trouble.

5. Try to evacuate your bowels before your run – this is fairly obvious, but take the time you need to get this taken care of.

If the weather is hotter than 85 degrees, I’d consider running on a treadmill in an air conditioned space.

I found this comprehensive list of strategies to avoid the trots quite helpful. Please check it out – and good luck on your summer runs and races. Perhaps we’ll cross paths at a rest stop near you!

Yet Another Reason Why Dr. Oz Cannot Be Trusted: False Claims About Red Palm Oil

Dr. Oz is a powerful guy, blessed with a name that conjures up wizardry. He just unveils his latest “miracle,” which seems to happen on an almost daily basis, and people scamper off to the nearest the health food. Recently the great Oz anointed the oil extracted from the fruit of the palm tree that grows in Indonesia and Malaysia as a wonder product that can aid weight loss and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Introduced to this marvel by his a guest, a homeopath, Dr. Oz excitedly gushed about the beta carotene and “special form of vitamin E” found in “red palm oil.” A curious business. Tell me, does a Professor of Surgery at Columbia University with over 400 research publications under his belt really need advice on nutrition from a homeopath?

As is usually the case with Oz’s miracles, there is a seed of truth that then gets fertilized with lots of verbal manure until it grows into a tree that bears fruit dripping with unsubstantiated hype. For example, one study did show a reduction in the severity of cholesterol-induced atherosclerosis in rabbits fed high doses of red palm oil. This has little relevance for humans but magicians who pull rabbits out of hats may consider adding red palm oil to the diet of their little assistant. The red colour of the oil comes from beta-carotene, the same substance that contributes to the hue of carrots and many other fruits and vegetables. It is the body’s precursor for vitamin A, which makes it an important nutrient.

Unfortunately, in many areas of the developing world there is a shortage of both beta carotene and vitamin A in the diet leading to a high incidence of blindness, skin problems and even death. In such cases red palm oil would be useful, but of course there are numerous other ways to introduce beta-carotene into the diet including “golden rice” that has been genetically modified to provide the nutrient. Aside from remedying a vitamin A deficiency, there is not much evidence for increased intake of beta carotene outside of that contained in a balanced diet. There are suggestions that higher blood levels of beta carotene reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women, but the beta-carotene levels may just be a marker for a better diet.

As far as the Alzheimer’s connection goes, Oz may have been referring to a study in which 74 seniors with mild dementia were compared with 158 healthy seniors. People with dementia had lower levels of beta-carotene and vitamin C in their blood. Again, this does not prove that the lower levels are responsible for the condition, they may just signal a diet that is poorer in fruits and vegetables. Tocotrienols, the “special form of vitamin E” Oz talked about, have shown some borderline effects in Alzheimer’s patients at doses way higher than found in red palm oil. There is no evidence for preventing the disease.

What about the claim that red palm oil causes loss of belly fat? That seems to come from a rat study in which a tocotrienol-rich fraction extracted from palm oil caused a reduction in fat deposits in the omentum, the tissue that surrounds organs. There was no evidence of abdominal fat reduction, and furthermore, the study involved putting the animals on an unnatural and unhealthy diet. But these are not the facts that the audience was treated to on the Dr. Oz Show.

What the eager viewers witnessed were three visually captivating but totally irrelevant demonstrations of the purported health benefits of red palm oil. First in line was a piece of apple that had turned brown because of “oxidation.” This could be prevented with a squirt of lemon juice, Oz explained. Then came the claim that red palm oil protects our brain the same way that lemon juice protects the apple. This is absurd. Vitamin C inactivates polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that allows oxygen to react with polyphenols in the apple resulting in the browning. The human brain, however, bears no resemblance to an apple, except perhaps for the brains of those who think it does. Yes, oxidation is a process that goes on in the human body all the time and has been linked with aging but suggesting that beta-carotene because of its antioxidant effects protects the brain like lemon juice protects the apple is inane.

Just as zany was the next demo in which two pieces of plastic half-pipe representing arteries were shown with clumps of some white guck, supposedly deposits that lead to heart disease. Oz poured a gooey liquid, representing “bad fats” down one of the tubes, highlighting that it stuck to the goo. Then he proceeded to pour red palm oil down the other pipe and lo and behold, the deposits washed away. Totally meaningless and physiological nonsense. The homeopath then explained that saturated fats behave like thick molasses cruising through the cardiovascular system, but palm oil does not, despite being high in saturated fats. While saturated fats may lead to deposits, they do not do this by “thickening” the blood. Arterial deposits are the result of some very complex biochemistry and are not caused by “sludge” in the blood. Oz even exclaimed that this demo was indicative of how red palm oil reduces cholesterol in a month by 40%, better than drugs. A search of Pubmed reveals no such study.

The final demonstration involved Dr. Oz lighting a candle and a flare, without wearing safety glasses mind you. The message seemed to be that the body burns most fats slowly, but it burns red palm oil with great efficiency, preventing weight gain. Where does this come from? Possibly some confusion about medium chain triglycerides which are somewhat faster metabolized than other fats. But these are not found in palm oil. They are found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Oz and his homeopath expert were as confused about this as about the rest of red palm oil info they belched out.

Aside from scientists who took issue with the misleading information, animal rights groups also attacked Oz’ exhortations about the benefits of the oil claiming that it will lead to destroying larger stretches of the jungle, home to many wild creatures including the orangutan. They maintain that when the jungle is cleared every living creature is either captured or killed and adult orangutans are often shot on sight. A tragedy. Another tragedy is that Dr. Oz could be doing so much good if he just focused on real science, as he sometimes does, instead of drooling over the latest “miracle” as presented by some pseudo expert.

***

Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”.  He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.  Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.

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