When we asked Greg Williams, head of Facing Addiction and organizer of the October 4 rally in Washington, D.C., why Mehmet Oz, M.D., of TV fame — someone with no past at all in the field — was a good choice to talk about addiction, his response was sharp and swift. “Perhaps our ‘field’ needs to stop talking to ourselves about how big this problem is and start talking to new audiences,” he said.

Williams is widely credited with bringing Oz into the addiction discussion in September with last month’s rally. But, Williams told ADAW, it wasn’t anything that Facing Addiction engineered. “We just were a big addiction story at the same time their show decided to focus on these issues,” Williams said last week. “We are thrilled he is opening up this important conversation for millions of Americans.”

And that is key: getting the addiction message to the many people who are concerned about it but not knowledgeable. Even Oz, a cardiologist, is approaching the topic “like a journalist instead of an expert,” said Williams.

Reaching the audience

Nobody would disagree that Oz is more a media personality than an academic or medical expert. But that can work to the benefit of patients, prospective patients and treatment providers. Consider this comment sent to us by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) on Oz:

“Given the broad reach of the Dr. Oz show, the program has the potential to deliver important educational information about addiction prevention and treatment to millions of viewers nationwide and NIDA has worked with them in the past to provide scientific information on selected initiatives. For example, the Dr. Oz show has supported NIDA’s National Drug Facts Week in the past by promoting it through social media. More recently, NIDA provided input to a parent discussion guide created by the Dr. Oz show for their Night of Conversation project.”

Night of Conversation

“The Dr. Oz Show,” as the program is called, has urged all Americans to talk about drugs at dinnertime on November 19. This “National Night of Conversation” is being conducted in partnership with Facing Addiction, Drugs Over Dinner (funded by Jamison Monroe Jr., CEO of Newport Academy). The show and organizations have downloadable media materials, including the parental discussion guide developed with input from NIDA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Council on Behavioral Health and HealthCorps (a high school program founded by Oz).

On November 10, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., was Oz’s guest; he talked about the forthcoming surgeon general’s report on addiction. One purpose of the report is “to bring the best possible science together about prevention, treatment and recovery,” said Murthy.

“The most important first step we can take in reducing the suffering and death from addiction is to simply talk about it,” said Oz in a November 5 statement. “By removing the fear and shame surrounding addiction, through an open dialog in families we will save lives. Parents need to educate their children about the overall risks of drugs and drinking, as well as get inside their children’s heads to assess what risks they may be facing already. Most importantly, we want to make it safe for family members to reach out for help.”

“We’re not pretending to be an expert,” said Tim Sullivan, spokesman for “The Dr. Oz Show.” “We have experts. He is a journalist and we are a show and he’s here as a doctor reporter. If anyone feels that there’s not a good upside to that…”

Unusual for a talk show, guests from the federal government — not authors of new books or other people with something to “sell” — have been featured, such as the surgeon general and Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Sullivan has worked with Oz long before the show started, in 2009. Out of the 1,100 or so shows done since then, a few have been on addiction, but never with the focus of this season, he told ADAW.

Telling the ‘happy’ story

Audience feedback was a main reason for choosing addiction as the main topic for this season, said Sullivan, a medical public relations professional who has done work with Smithers at Beth Israel, the Association of Recovery Schools, and the deservedly ill-fated Prometa (“I was a hired gun,” he explains).

“We want to tell the happy and redemptive side of the addiction story” he said. “It’s not all crisis and sadness — treatment can be successful — recovery is real.” When shows “focus on the point of crisis, it’s hard for people to watch,” said Sullivan. After meeting with former Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., and with the National Council on Behavioral Health, Dr. Oz decided to facilitate a “national conversation” on addiction — not focusing on the need for access to treatment, but focusing on addiction and recovery.

“Our job as a show is to shed light where there’s darkness,” said Sullivan. “Dr. Oz is a heart surgeon, so this is not his area of medicine, and his life experience in it is fairly limited.” The show is adept at topics like diabetes and blood pressure, said Sullivan.

And the show needs groups who are in the treatment field. “I think the National Council offers more to us than we offer to them, because they are in the business of aggregating best practices and bringing a coalition together,” said Sullivan.

The show probably won’t get very deep into treatment itself, said Sullivan. “You have to remember that people who are not connected to this field are still debating the disease model,” he said. “With a general audience, you have to start at the beginning, in a very gentle way.”

The Greg Williams connection

“It’s partially true that Greg was the one who brought Dr. Oz to the table,” said Sullivan. He had high praise for Williams’ film, “The Anonymous People.” Williams called him last spring and asked if the show would be interested in helping with advocacy for the September rally. “It seemed like it would be an opportunity — a way to shine a light on the 20 million people who are in recovery,” said Sullivan. “Greg is dealing with an important question, which is ‘Why anonymity?’ He has made the sensible argument that it is time for people in recovery to step forward — to show recovery as a happy ending. That story hasn’t been told.”

Improving treatment supply?

But will telling that story improve access to treatment now for people on waiting lists or people who can’t afford it?

“Your audience is the treatment field,” responded Sullivan. “That’s a completely different audience than ours. Our audience is the average person who may or may not want to know about this.”

And Williams said that by driving demand for treatment, publicity about addiction will lead to increased access. “Finding platforms that reach millions about the need for increased addiction health services will drive demand-side increases for those services,” he said. “It’s up to health care providers, payers and policymakers to figure out how to meet the increased demand,” he told ADAW. “But I am convinced by increasing demand in health care services for addiction, we will put pressure on the various systems to increase access and supply.”

“Dr. Oz is using his programming and influence to raise awareness of addiction in general and the opioid crisis specifically,” said Becky Vaughn, vice president for addictions of the National Council. “He is able to reach an audience where our own efforts often fail. As a field, we should take advantage of this opportunity. Our school- and community-based prevention and treatment providers should certainly capitalize on the messages that are being picked up by media, push the idea in their communities and provide talking points for parents.”

The National Council has been promoting initiatives that would strengthen community behavioral health centers; this is something that Oz could discuss on the show, as well as the need for medication-assisted treatment and other services. But Sullivan made it clear that the show has more basic aims.

“What we’re asking our audience to do is to just talk to their kids about drugs,” said Sullivan. “We’re not in the middle of a huge policy fight, we’re not pointing to money allocations — we’re asking people to have dinner.”

Bottom Line…

Dr. Oz sheds light on addiction by bringing top experts to his show and suggests increased demand for treatment will lead to increased access.