If a doctor says something on television, it must be true—right? Not so fast. Actually, much of the medical advice dispensed by TV celebrity doctors is questionable, to say the least. (I'm talking about real doctors here, not actors who play doctors on TV.) Over the past several years, we've called attention in particular to Dr. Mehmet Oz, who makes recommendations that are often wacky or downright wrong—and risky. In 2014 a Senate panel harshly admonished him for making unsubstantiated weight-loss claims and touting dubious products on his show. More recently, a group of 10 doctors from around the country called for Dr. Oz to be removed from the faculty of Columbia University, where he is vice chair of the Department of Surgery, citing his promotion of "quack treatments and cures," among other offenses.
In one episode, for instance, Dr. Oz gave a thumbs up to green coffee extract as a "miracle" weight-loss pill—though of course if it were a real "miracle," there would be no need for him to plug so many other weight-loss supplements (like the "belly-blaster" 7-Keto) on other episodes. Want a natural sweetener that can help prevent the sugar crashes that make you feel hungry and cause you to gain weight? Coconut sugar is it, Dr. Oz said on another episode—though there's no evidence to support these claims, and coconut sugar has as many calories as regular sugar. What about a natural tooth whitener? Dr. Oz recommended lemon juice and baking soda, but the mixture doesn't stay on teeth long enough to have a whitening effect. And as he himself acknowledged, the acid from the lemons can erode tooth enamel if left on too long.
With his charisma, good looks, and enthusiasm, the scrubs-wearing Dr. Oz certainly puts on a good show. Entertainment it is indeed; good medical advice it often is not. That's why I was glad to see a recent study in the medical journal BMJ that, for the first time, systematically analyzed the recommendations and claims made on The Dr. Oz Show (the most popular syndicated medical talk show), along with those on The Doctors (the second most popular). Researchers watched 40 episodes of each show from 2013 and then had independent reviewers search medical databases to find published studies that supported the recommendations being made. Little surprise, of 160 recommendations, about half had no supporting evidence or ran contrary to the best evidence available. The Doctors fared a bit better, with 63 percent of the recommendations backed by evidence versus 46 percent on the Dr. Oz Show.
Especially disturbing was that the shows mentioned potential harms less than 10 percent of the time and almost never declared potential conflicts of interest. The study noted that the recommendations were often given by guests on the show, not the doctors themselves. Still, to the average viewer, I doubt this distinction matters much in terms of how believable they seemed, since a guest's recommendation carries the implicit endorsement of the doctors, especially when they sit there nodding their heads.
This was an important study, given that these two programs reach more than 5 million people a day, dishing out an average of 23 health-related recommendations daily. For many viewers, these shows are their primary (or even sole) source of medical information.
Though Dr. Oz and the hosts of The Doctors seem trustworthy and sometimes do give good advice, you should be skeptical about what you hear on their shows. After all, their primary mission is to get people to tune in, not to make them healthier. If a medical product or remedy discussed on TV—or discussed anywhere, for that matter—is of interest to you, my advice is that you research it yourself (and not just on the websites promoting it). Then seek a second opinion—from your own doctor.