Don’t trust TV doctors’ advice, says study

No one expects doctors to be anything like they are on TV, which isn’t always a bad thing, because while it would be nice to meet George Clooney in the emergency room, an encounter with Dr House could scar you for life.

But when it comes to real doctors on TV, we do expect them to know what they’re talking about. Especially if they’re wearing white coats, or scrubs and a serious expression. But it turns out we shouldn’t be so trusting. Because they could well be talking total claptrap – even if they’re mates with Oprah like Dr Oz (pictured).

The University of Alberta decided to track the health advice offered on a couple of medical talk shows, The Doctors and The Dr Oz Show, after hearing that many patients are going to their GPs wanting treatments that they’d seen on these programmes.

They took four months’ worth of daily broadcasts of both shows, randomly selected 40 episodes of each and asked two researchers to watch both separately, recording what the topics were and what specific health recommendations were made. Two further independent researchers looked at whether benefits of specific treatments were mentioned and if any costs were brought up, or conflicts of interest declared. After that, they chose the 80 strongest recommendations from each show, asking medical researchers to find out if there was scientific evidence to support the shows’ claims.

More often than not, there wasn’t. Instead, they found that just half of the recommendations on The Doctors and only one in three on Dr Oz could be backed up by scientific evidence. What’s more, potential dangers were flagged up less than 10% of the time on both programmes, and conflicting interests were hardly ever mentioned – an issue about which Oz had to give evidence at a Senate hearing earlier this year, after he promoted a ‘miracle’ weight loss product on his show and in ads. (The product was later discovered to have no benefits whatsoever.)

Of course, it could just be the case that these particular shows are outliers, and you can trust every other non-fictional doctor on TV. And those doctors are in the U.S, where healthcare and television are both totally different. I mean, I have to believe Dr Chris wouldn’t lie to me. But just to be on the safe side, it’s probably better to take what TV doctors tell us with a pinch of salt (and to not take any weirdo weight loss supplements).

Image from World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons.

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