Are medical talk shows credible?

An Insight, An Idea with Mehmet Oz: Mehmet C. OzWhen you turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or flip through a magazine, you’re likely to come across some advice on how to improve your health. Americans are hungry for “magic bullet” fixes to their health problems – whether it’s obesity, toenail fungus, or back pain. Our desire for medical advice has led to the rise of medical talk shows, where medical doctors offer health advice. But do these shows offer sound advice?

A study published in the British Medical Journal answered that exact question. Researchers recorded episodes of The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors from early 2013 and categorized the health recommendations made on the shows.  Then they randomly selected 160 of the televised recommendations and searched for research to support them.

Their findings certainly surprised me!  Only 54 percent of the recommendations made on the shows were supported by a case study or stronger evidence. Breaking it down by show, about one-third of the recommendations on The Dr. Oz Show and half of the recommendations on The Doctors were based on believable or somewhat believable evidence.

Researchers found no evidence for 39 percent of the advice on The Dr. Oz Show and 24 percent of the advice on The Doctors.  And they found contradictory evidence for 15 percent of advice on the Dr. Oz Show and 14 percent of advice on The Doctors.

I find it astonishing that these television shows, promoted as offering reliable medical information, give advice that goes against the evidence. Even more concerning is the number of Americans who watch and assumedly believe this advice. (For the television season used in the study, The Dr. Oz Show was consistently ranked in the top five talk shows in America with an average of 2.9 million viewers per day and The Doctors had a high of 2.3 million viewers.)

The study authors do point out that even when you visit a medical professional, you don’t always get advice based on sound evidence. The credibility of medical advice in the real world is difficult to access, but it’s estimated that about 78 percent of medical interventions are evidence-based. It’s not quite fair to compare these situations, though, because your medical professional is giving you an individual assessment and evaluating all of the factors contributing to your medical care, whereas medical talk shows are offering sweeping advice to a large population.

The take-home message here is incredibly clear: Don’t believe everything you hear on TV, especially if it’s part of a medical talk show!

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