In this rapidly changing world of healthcare, people are turning more and more to other sources for health information. The best example of this trend is the popularity of two medical talk shows – The Doctor Oz Show and The Doctors. In the 2012-13 television season, The Doctor Oz Show was one of the five top talk shows in the United States. 2.9 million viewers, on average, watched the show each day. The Doctors averaged 2.3 million daily viewers. Should we trust medical advice in traditional and online media?

A new study published in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) tries to answer this question. Christina Korownyk and other researchers at the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia analyzed 80 randomly selected episodes (40 each) of The Doctor Oz Show and The Doctors. They showed some interesting – and maybe surprising – findings.

Should we trust online medical information?

Medical recommendations on these television shows

The Doctor Oz Show made an average of 12 recommendations per episode. The Doctors averaged 11 recommendations per episode.

Evidence supporting the recommendations

When reviewing 80 randomly selected recommendations from each show, the recommendations on The Doctor Oz Show could be corroborated with believable or somewhat believable evidence 33% of the time. Believable or somewhat believable evidence supported 53% of the recommendations on The Doctors.

Evidence not supporting the recommendations

Believable or somewhat believable evidence against the recommendations could be found for 11% of the recommendations on The Doctor Oz Show and 13% of those on The Doctors.

Mention of benefits, harms and cost

For both programs, the medical recommendations only mentioned a specific benefit 40% of the time. The magnitude of benefit was discussed less than one in five times, harms referenced in less than 10%, and costs mentioned in less than 15% of recommendations.

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No evidence for the recommendations

No evidence could be found at all for over one third of the recommendations on The Doctor Oz Show. The same was true for one fourth of the recommendations on The Doctors.

Conflict of interest

Out of the 924 total recommendations mentioned on the 80 episodes of the two programs, only four mentioned that a potential conflict of interest existed.

Recommendations to see a healthcare professional

9% of the recommendations made on The Doctor Oz Show were suggestions to consult a doctor or healthcare provider. 33% of the recommendations made on The Doctors suggested that viewers should consult a healthcare professional.

My take on whether you can trust medical advice online or in the media

Obviously as someone who writes blog posts five days a week, hosts a weekly podcast, and writes a regular newspaper column, I have an interest in this study. And while I make recommendations all the time, I always point out that my information is not intended to serve as specific medical advice. I haven’t discussed your medical problems with you, examined you or reviewed your studies, so I can’t tell you what you should do for your specific problem, and no doctor on TV or online can.Should we trust medical advice from doctors online or on TV?

To be fair, I have no general problems with these two shows. They are very entertaining, and they get people interested in their health, which is always a good trend. If this data is accurate, though, I’m concerned that people might try treatments for which there is little to no scientific evidence. The public needs to carefully evaluate the recommendations given on these two TV shows, just like we should do with any media where health topics are discussed.

I do think there is a tremendous benefit to doctors and other healthcare professionals providing easy-to-understand information on TV, radio – and yes, online and in social media. We can advocate tips to improve health, prevent obesity, avoid illnesses, prevent injuries and more. Any medium that lets us reach far more people than we can in our clinics offers a potentially huge and positive opportunity.

The information and recommendations of doctors and other health professionals online or on television and radio should only supplement information provided to patients by their doctors, not replace it.

Korownyk C, Kolber MR, McCormack J, Lam V, Overbo K, Cotton C, Finley C, Turgeon RD, Garrison S, Lindblad AJ, Banh HL, Campbell-Scherer D, Vandermeer B, Allan GM. Televised medical talk shows-what they recommend and the evidence to support their recommendations: a prospective observational study. BMJ. 2014 Dec 17;349:g7346.