Programs like The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors dispense with a lot of medical advice. But how many of these recommendations can be substantiated? Some researchers took the time to find out, and the results are not encouraging.
We won't leave you hanging: Roughly 50% of advice on these shows is either unsupported or contradicted by the best available evidence. Here's how we know.
Daytime medical programs – and Mehmet Oz, host of The Dr. Oz Show, specifically – have come under fire recently for peddling unsubstantiated, or even harmful, medical advice to their viewers. But according to a study published yesterday in the British Medical Journal, nobody has systematically examined the content of these shows to assess the validity of their claims.
That's a pretty glaring oversight, if you think about it. Television, the researchers note, is popular and therefore an important source of health information for the public. Shouldn't doctors, policy makers, and – perhaps most importantly – the people watching these programs have some feel for how credible these shows actually are? These programs certainly elicit a lot of raised eyebrows from the medical community – but how high is the bullshit quotient for televised medical talk shows, really?
To find out, researchers led by Christina Korownyk, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Alberta, asked experienced reviewers to search for and evaluate evidence that would support or refute recommendations made on television's two most popular medical talk shows, viz., The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors.
"Many of the authors of this study are primary care physicians, and the core members of our group do regular presentations on primary care topics," Korownyk tells io9. "We were motivated to look more closely at what was being said on these shows after physicians at our talks raised issues about what they heard from patients watching [these shows]," she said. "We also heard comments from our own patients."
In total, the reviewers evaluated 160 randomly selected recommendations made on these shows. Of those recommendations, nearly half were either unsupported or flatly contradicted by the best available evidence. The summarized details are as follows (pardon the wall of text, but every single line of it is relevant):
We could find at least a case study or better evidence to support 54% (95% confidence interval 47% to 62%) of the 160 recommendations (80 from each show). For recommendations in The Dr Oz Show, evidence supported 46%, contradicted 15%, and was not found for 39%. For recommendations in The Doctors, evidence supported 63%, contradicted 14%, and was not found for 24%. Believable or somewhat believable evidence supported 33% of the recommendations on The Dr Oz Show and 53% on The Doctors. On average, The Dr Oz Show had 12 recommendations per episode and The Doctors 11. The most common recommendation category on The Dr Oz Show was dietary advice (39%) and on The Doctors was to consult a healthcare provider (18%). A specific benefit was described for 43% and 41% of the recommendations made on the shows respectively. The magnitude of benefit was described for 17% of the recommendations on The Dr Oz Show and 11% on The Doctors. Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest accompanied 0.4% of recommendations.
Korownyk and her colleagues provide a more detailed analysis in their full study, which I encourage you to read for yourself. It's free to access, is clearly and cogently presented, and offers insights into the nature of these two programs that are at once troubling and fascinating. For instance:
The most common recommendations differed between the shows. On The Dr Oz Show the most common recommendations were dietary advice, while the most common recommendation on The Doctors was to consult a healthcare professional. Dietary recommendations were almost four times more common (39% v 10%) on The Dr Oz Show than on The Doctors. Dietary recommendations on The Dr Oz Show were close to eight times more common (39% v 5%) than exercise recommendations. Similarly, dietary recommendations were twice as common as exercise recommendations (10%v 5%) on The Doctors.
If you're like me, you probably find the results of Korownyk's team's study troubling. I know people personally who watch The Dr. Oz Show, and reading through these findings makes me want to steal their televisions and hurl them into a ravine. This, I think, is a normal reaction. We want to protect the people we care about. Shielding someone you love from unsubstantiated medical advice is a no-brainer, right?
Karownyk and her team raise some interesting points in their study about the relationship that exists between programs like this and their audiences. For instance, what does the average Dr. Oz viewer really expect to gain from watching the show? People may, in fact, seek out these programs for purely inspirational/motivational/entertainment-oriented purposes. And if this is the case, you have to wonder if such an audience could even be swayed by an article like Karownyk's.
The study also makes me wonder about the advice people receive, face-to-face, from their personal physicians, and how reliable that information is. For instance, last month, allergist Kara Wada presented the results of a study that found many doctors don't know fact from fiction when it comes to best practices when treating allergies.
"We asked what the best first treatment was for a patient experiencing vomiting and hives after eating a known food allergen," said Wada. She continues:
Only 50 percent of internal medicine physicians knew it was epinephrine. And 85 percent of internal medicine physicians thought the flu vaccine shouldn't be given to egg-allergic patients. It's now known that it's safe for those with egg allergies to get the flu shot.
In other words: Common sense, and studies like Karownyk's, may appear to suggest that the advice you get from your personal physician is more reliable than what you hear on TV – but the real takeaway is that patients should be critical when it comes to their personal care. Whether you're getting advice from the TV, or getting it from your personal physician, it's important to ask questions. Be skeptical. Advocate for yourself. And, of course, you should eat right and exercise.
When I told Karownyk her study made me want to throw televisions of my Oz-watching loved ones into a ditch, she responded, I think, rather judiciously:
"I do not think that I can recommend you hurling [anyone's television into a] ravine on the basis of this study alone," she said. "It may be more reasonable to [rig their] television so that it is powered only by the constant pedaling of a stationary bike." Regardless of what they're watching, she says, they'll be benefitting.
"Many people enjoy these shows, so I would simply recommend 'harm reduction,'" says Karownyk. "You can't take away all their pleasures."