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Are TV Docs Dispensing Bad Medicine?

Are TV Docs Dispensing Bad Medicine?In times past, the doctor was in. Today, the doctor is also on, and millions of us are watching.

Syndicated TV shows such as The Doctors and The Dr. Oz Show examine issues of physical and mental health, usually through a talk show format that blends experts, ordinary folk, celebrities, and viewer questions. Such shows are hugely popular, with these two alone capturing more than five million viewers daily. What’s not clear is to what extent viewers depend on this information for their health decisions.

That’s a worry, because a recent study by University of Alberta researchers systematically analyzed dozens of episodes of these two shows and found:

  • About half of what appeared either had no scientific evidence to back it or was contradicted by the best available evidence.
  • Recommendations were often so broad as to be meaningless.
  • There was virtually no disclosure of potential conflicts of interests.

The researchers’ conclusion about the advice a viewer is likely to receive? “Be skeptical.”

It’s not the first time that a finger has been wagged at medical talk shows. In the summer of 2014, for example, the star of The Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Mehmet Oz, was called before Congress and told to quit overstating the benefits of dietary aids. In a 2012 show, for example, he called green coffee extract “a magic weight loss cure,” although he endorses no specific products. Dr. Oz blamed his tendency toward “flowery” language and promised to dial it back.

It’s this quest for the superlative that can override the much less flashy world of evidence-based science, with its caveats and qualifiers. After all, what’s more likely to catch a viewer’s attention: a “magic cure” or a supplement shown to have some potential to help certain people but only under certain conditions?

Making the Most of Face-to-Face Health

The University of Alberta study is the first to sort through the recommendations doled out on medical shows, and it helps confirm that TV doctors are no replacement for a one-on-one relationship with the real thing. Still, viewers can hardly be blamed for looking.

Doctors today are in a rush, and we feel it when we visit them. Pressured to keep the patient line moving, they all too often have scant time for the in-depth conversation that can unearth the issues behind our symptoms. It’s common to feel patched up and sent on our way.

Turning on the TV for a daily dose of medical advice can seem to offer the big picture we may be missing in our few minutes in the doctor’s office. And indeed, these shows can be a window on health trends. When this information becomes a problem is when the viewer sees it as their own personal prescription.

A safer approach, the study team noted, is to accept the shows for what they are: entertainment. If the recommendations they offer seem pertinent or helpful, check with your doctor first before putting them into action, and ask specific questions about benefits and harms in your case. For example, if you take antidepressants and the show you watched has made you wonder if they are wrong for you, don’t just stop taking them until you’ve had a chance to talk about your concerns with a medical professional.

Rather than deferring to the TV for answers, put your energy into getting the most that you can from your time with your healthcare provider. For example:

  • Build a personal relationship with your doctor. Don’t go in only when your ailments and concerns pile up. Make time for an annual wellness visit.
  • Write down your questions for your doctor the night before so you don’t forget to ask something that is important to you.
  • Avoid the “doorknob phenomenon” — waiting until the doctor’s hand is on the doorknob to leave the exam room before you mention your concern. Schedule an appointment to address your specific issue, and mention it from the outset.
  • Leave your embarrassment at the door. Your doctor can’t help you if you wait for them to pry out the details of what’s troubling you. They’ve seen it all, so open up.
  • Thanks to the combined effects of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act, more insurance policies than ever include mental health benefits. Take advantage of them. It’s all too common to put emotional concerns behind strictly physical ones, but they are intimately related. Paying attention to mental health can set in motion a cascade of positive effects.

Once you have a course of action in place, be diligent in following up with your doctor about your progress or lack thereof. Communication — the kind you get from a trained professional who knows you rather than from a TV screen — is the key.

Are TV Docs Dispensing Bad Medicine?

David Sack, M.D.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment centers including drug and alcohol rehab programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas.

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APA Reference
Sack, D. (2019). Are TV Docs Dispensing Bad Medicine?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2019
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