TORONTO – Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, dubbed ‘America’s doctor,’ faced a grilling from U.S. senators this year. In a new study, Canadian scientists scrutinized the validity of his claims – and the results aren’t pretty.
Doctors at the University of Alberta recorded four months’ worth of The Dr. Oz Show to see if his recommendations held any clout. Turns out, the cardiothoracic-surgeon-turned-TV-personality’s messages aren’t exactly backed by research.
“The public may see these shows as educational, but in many ways we wonder if that’s really what they’re there for and perhaps they’re just there for entertainment,” co-researcher Dr. Mike Allan said.
He and his colleague, Dr. Christina Korownyk, are hoping that may be the case. Their paper, published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), suggests “the public should be skeptical” about what they’re fed from medical talk shows.
But it was patients that piqued their interest in studying Dr. Oz’s advice. They’d heard from fellow physicians whose patients took the celebrity doctor’s advice to heart.
“Some patients come in and say ‘I heard on Dr. Oz yesterday that we should all be doing this.’ And then we’re left scrambling in our office to try to find answers,” Korownyk explained.
“It got us reflecting, what’s being said there? What kinds of things are being recommended and what kind of information is being provided?”
Korownyk and her team recorded the program – along with another show, called The Doctors – every day from January to April in 2013. They randomly selected 40 episodes of each show and watched the episodes to record topics, recommendations made and who was making the recommendations.
After that, another set of researchers were brought in to watch the programs, zeroing in on the information provided. They had to decide if the recommendations listed a benefit, if the information was specific, if it mentioned cost, the magnitude and if a conflict of interest was at play.
Eighty of the strongest recommendations were also investigated to see if there was any scientific evidence to prop up the TV doctors’ claims.
“One out of three recommendations from The Dr. Oz Show has believable evidence and about half of the recommendations on The Doctors has believable evidence,” Korownyk said. But for the most part, the research backing up these claims was often “absent, contradictory or of poor quality.”
Less than 10 per cent of the time, Dr. Oz mentioned potential harms when doling out his advice. About 12 per cent of the time, he shed light on cost.
The Alberta research suggests that out of 924 total recommendations, in only four instances was there a mention of a potential conflict of interest between both shows.
The researchers say that the general advice they’re getting from these TV shows shouldn’t be taken at face value.
“It is limited and would not allow many patients to make a clear informed choice about what they’re hearing. They’re really taking these recommendations based on their trust of the host rather than making an informed choice based on the information provided,” Allan said.
Be skeptical, they warned viewers of these programs.
During U.S. hearings about his controversial claims, U.S. officials shared similar sentiments.
“I get that you do a lot of good on your show. I understand that you give a lot of information that’s great information…you’re very talented and you’re obviously very bright,” Claire McCaskill, chair of the consumer protection panel, told Oz in June.
READ MORE: Canadian doctor explains why diets fail
“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. When you have this amazing megaphone, why do you cheapen your show?” she asked.
Oz conceded that he’s used “flowery” language about certain supplements but he’s promised to improve on what he promotes to his followers. He told U.S. officials that he’ll publish a list of specific products he thinks will genuinely help consumers lose weight and get healthy.
“I’ve used flowery language…which was meant to be helpful, but wound up being incendiary and provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers,” Oz said this summer.
READ MORE: Do fad diets followed by celebrities work?
“In addition to exercising an abundance of caution in discussing promising research and products in the future, I look forward to working with all those present today in finding a way to deal with the problems of weight loss scams,” he said in a prepared statement following the hearings.