In May 2003, Mehmet Oz was the senior author on a study that explored a hot topic at the time: Whether heart bypass surgery conducted with the aid of a heart-lung machine impaired a patient’s cognitive function more than surgery conducted without the machine.
Oz’s research was scheduled to lead off the scientific session of the 83rd annual American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS) conference, according to a program from the event, where physicians in that specialty convene to discuss developments in their field. But Oz was forced to withdraw his work and was banned from presenting research to the organization for the next two years, according to seven people familiar with the events, whose account of his ban was confirmed by the Oz campaign. Oz is now the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
He was also prohibited from publishing his work in the society’s medical journal for the same period of time, according to the people familiar with the events, four of whom recalled details of the controversy on the record. Three others spoke on the condition of anonymity to more openly discuss a sensitive subject that reflects on Oz’s reputation. Some of Oz’s 15 co-authors on the abstract did not respond to requests for comment. The Oz campaign did not respond to questions about the journal.
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At issue were questions about the strength of the data used by Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon, to reach an important medical conclusion, according to several of those who recalled the events. The penalty he experienced in 2003 was a significant one, according to an expert who was not involved in the dispute, Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that monitors honesty in academic research.
A spokeswoman for the Oz campaign, Brittany Yanick, said in an email that “the original abstract was accepted for presentation, but only included a limited number of patients. Since they had several months between submission of the abstract and its presentation at the national meeting, [Oz’s] team elected to broaden the scope of the work with more patients. Reviewers of his team’s work wanted only the data in the original paper to be presented, which created an academic disagreement amongst researchers.”
Others involved in the matter recalled that Oz submitted the results from a small pilot study of 56 subjects that was designed to help secure a larger grant. The AATS reviewer objected to reaching any firm conclusion with so few test subjects, they said.
Oz has made his career in medicine a central feature of his campaign in a race that could determine which party controls the Senate. Medical experts and the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, have hammered Oz over fringe ideas and unsupported health recommendations made on his popular television show, “The Dr. Oz Show,” over 13 seasons. In this case, the conflict involved the way Oz conducted research for a study.
In the 2003 dispute, there was no hint of academic fraud or fabrication of data.
After conducting their own follow-up investigation, medical officials at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, where Oz worked, took no action against him, according to people familiar with the events. And Oz, who has published hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers, is back in the good graces of the AATS, appearing at conferences, according to documents and the Oz campaign.
Bruce W. Lytle, an AATS official involved in the decision to impose the two-year ban, said its severity reflected questions about the presentation’s methodology.
“The decision of the council was in part based on making it absolutely clear that the presentation should reflect the methodology as described in the abstract,” he said. Other members of the panel did not respond to requests for comment or are deceased.
Yanick acknowledged in an email that Oz was “instructed to avoid submitting another abstract for each of the next two annual meetings” after what she called “an academic disagreement amongst researchers.” Yanick said in an email “there were no long term consequences” from the conflict and Oz remains a member in good standing of the AATS.
But Oransky said medical societies are reluctant to sanction members, especially those given prominent positions at conferences. Oransky, who is also a distinguished writer in residence at New York University, likened the penalty to a baseball player being suspended for a few games.
“It’s something they take very seriously and reserve for fairly significant issues, whether they’re behavioral or issues of scientific integrity,” Oransky said.
David Bobbitt, executive director of the AATS, declined to discuss the events. “The American Association for Thoracic Surgery is an academic medical society that is happy to talk about our mission and our work, but we do not comment about individual members,” he said in an emailed statement.
John D. Puskas, currently chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery at Mount Sinai Morningside in New York, who raised the questions about Oz’s work, according to people familiar with the events, did not return telephone calls, a text message and emails seeking comment. A spokesman for Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center also declined to comment.
Eric Rose, chief of cardiac surgery at Columbia University’s medical program and Oz’s superior in 2003, also confirmed the incident. Rose, who was a co-author on Oz’s abstract because he was chairman of the department, said he and Oz had been close, but their relationship soured about three years ago. He said he is opposed to Oz’s political views and has contributed $165 to Fetterman’s campaign.
About three weeks ago, Rose said, Oz reached out after years of not being in touch and asked him to say publicly that Oz did not bear responsibility for alleged inhumane treatment of puppies that occurred as part of medical research Oz oversaw as a principal investigator at Columbia dating back to at least the early 2000s, claims that had surfaced in an online report. Oz’s campaign has denied that he ever abused any animals. The Washington Post has not independently verified the allegations about the abuse.
Rose said he declined Oz’s request because it felt like a political favor. Yanick confirmed the call took place and said, “Oz reached out to Dr. Rose along with several other Doctors to ask for their assistance in setting the record straight.” She added, “Doctors from his time at Columbia offered words of support, and some put their support in writing.”
Rose said that when he told Oz he strongly disagreed with his politics and had issues with former president Donald Trump, the Republican candidate distanced himself from Trump. “He said to me, Trump isn’t the leader of the party,” Rose said, speaking of Oz. “He told me that Mitch McConnell is the leader of the Republican Party.” Oz also said, according to Rose, that Doug Mastriano, the far-right Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, “won’t win.”
Oz spokesman Barney Keller said in a statement that Oz did not make the comments Rose attributed to him about McConnell, Trump and Mastriano. “Doctor Oz never said any of those things, and it’s irresponsible and frankly pathetic that The Washington Post falsely attributes them to him,” Keller said in the statement. Oz’s campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview.
A former colleague, Charles Stolar, a pediatric surgeon at Columbia, said he spoke to Rose shortly after that conversation and corroborated the details as Rose recounted them, including the comments about McConnell, Trump and Mastriano.
“I can assure you as sure as the sun rises that Eric is not lying,” said Stolar, who identified as a Democrat.
Research “abstracts,” which are summaries of findings, are submitted to medical conferences months before the studies are discussed at them. After submitting his, Oz and the other researchers were not able to follow through to Puskas’s satisfaction, according to two people aware of the problem who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject that reflects on Oz’s reputation.
The AATS president, Fred A. Crawford, was set to be one of two moderators for the panel, and Puskas was named “discussant” for the proceedings. In an email, Crawford said the abstract withdrawal was “a technical issue and not in any way related to fabrication of data or dishonesty.”
The study was withdrawn shortly before the meeting when Puskas raised questions about it, according to several people who recalled the events.
Oz’s abstract said that on the basis of testing 56 people, he would show there was no difference in patients’ “neurocognitive performance,” regardless of the way the surgery was conducted. At the time, some doctors suspected that hours on the “pump” had an effect on their patients’ subsequent cognitive ability.
Puskas ultimately concluded that the data did not support the planned presentation, three people said.
“My understanding is it was the lack of really solid statistical analysis that called everything into question,” said one person who was sympathetic to Oz, saying he simply ran into funding and deadline problems.
“This paper was very important to the world as to whether [pump-assisted surgery] works or not,” that person said. After withdrawing a featured paper, “the AATS was really embarrassed.”