Last week, I got a surprising email from a science-minded colleague who had recently appeared on The Dr. Oz Show. "They are taking the 'sticking by science' thing fairly seriously," he wrote.
This was intriguing. For years, Oz's health show, watched by millions, has been sharply criticized for promoting bad science and bogus health advice. The Federal Trade Commission had found that Oz's producers did the scantest research on the show's guests, which allowed modern-day snake oil salesmen to appear on air hawking bogus products. In April, a group of professors, scientists and doctors argued the show was so misleading that Oz's professor position was incompatible with his on-air work.
But perhaps things were changing. This past summer, Oz had embarked on a "listening tour" with health professionals, in an attempt to understand how his brand of TV medicine affects public health — and how he might do better. If my colleague was right, Oz might well have taken the criticism to heart.
So I decided to investigate, randomly selecting 10 of the 20 episodes of his current season, which began on September 14. And what I found was actually refreshing.
In the past, Oz often promoted miracle supplements and fad foods. Now, in the shows I watched, he was focused more on debunking dubious products, explaining how science works, and urging informed consumerism among his viewers. Even some of the more borderline segments, like one on cryotherapy, had a more skeptical tone than shows of the past.
To be sure, The Dr. Oz Show is hardly an exemplar of scientific thinking. Oz still has a tendency to overpromise bold fixes to complex health problems, and he continues to sometimes mishandle evidence. But to his credit, he does seem to be taking seriously his promise to improve the rigor of his show.
The new Dr. Oz is a lot more skeptical of bogus claims
Perhaps the best indication of how Oz's show has changed came on Friday, October 9.
The show started by taking a critical look at the flimsy science, which has gone viral in some circles, allegedly showing that kale is somehow bad for you because it absorbs heavy metals through its roots. (I dissected that myth here.) Oz didn't try to stoke the fears. Instead, he invited Holly Phillips, an MD and medical contributor to CBS News, to calmly explain why worries about kale were probably overblown.
Phillips noted that the studies drawing a link between kale and various ailments were mostly observational and not at all conclusive. Then she offered valuable context for this debate: Americans don't eat enough vegetables, period. Too much kale is the least of their worries when the real concern should be too few greens.
What's more, Oz stressed to his viewers that they should be cautious about many popular health claims they see or hear. "Information is pushed around these days," Oz said, until someone's "mom starts sending out letters and our friend kale started taking a bit of a beating." (This was particularly amusing to me, because I'd often written articles debunking wild claims that first appeared on Oz's show after getting emails from my mom about them.)
For his next segment, Oz discussed "pink Viagra," a libido booster for women sold under the brand name Addyi. Again, rather than hype it up, Oz gave a pretty reasonable breakdown of the pill's risks and benefits, explaining that Addyi takes about a month to work and can help deliver, on average, only about one extra sexually satisfying event per month. He also cautioned that the pill had been rejected by the FDA twice before approval, because it doesn't work all that well and carries serious side effects.
He did have one bit that was a little wrong, saying: "There are currently 10 pharmaceuticals on the market designed to increase male libido, and there is just one for women." In reality, Addyi was the first medical treatment for low libido for either sex. (Drugs like Viagra address mechanical problems, like blood flow, not sexual drive.) But all told, it was a solid segment.
The other shows I watched went about the same: Oz mostly stuck to science, deviating with the odd, mostly harmless quirk. He debunked "smart drugs," which promise to enhance memory and intelligence, again talking with researchers about the limitations of the research on these pills and supplements. He also discussed caffeine e-cigarettes, in which a specialist warned the audience, "I would be looking for other ways to boost your energy."
Another segment focused on how to beat the afternoon energy slump. In the old days, I would've expected Oz to talk up some miracle supplement. But not here. Instead, he offered less flashy but sounder advice: People should exercise and eat protein and fiber instead of sugar. Only at the end of the show did he deviate into some disease-mongering, suggesting women who feel tired get their thyroids checked.
But Oz's show is still far from perfect
All that said, there was room for improvement. For example, Oz included a segment on cryotherapy, which involves submerging your body in extreme cold (-200˚F) for the promise of a range of health benefits, including weight loss and faster recovery after exercise.
There's a lot of debate among researchers about whether it actually works, but the show's "expert" was someone who happens to be a managing partner at a cryotherapy company and wasn't exactly primed to give a critical look at the evidence. So overall, the segment wasn't very balanced at all, and even featuring two cryotherapy fans who talked up the machine as a fountain of youth that made their cellulite disappear.
Another segment discussed the "short burst diet," in which people severely restrict their calories for five days every month. Right now, there's little evidence one way or the other on whether this works. But the show seemed to veer at times into hype rather than critical thinking.
Michael Roizen — an anesthesiologist and Oz's partner in crime — talked up speculative research showing that the diet may help people's stem cells reproduce. "It may just help you get real young," he said. He also offered his own made-for-TV science experiment, featuring two women who said the diet worked for them, helping to flatten their bellies and boost their energy.
To their credit, Oz and Roizen did later point out that many of the short-burst dieting studies have only involved small samples of people, and that the stem cell research had been done mostly on yeast and mice so far. But the audience testimonials and Roizen's plugging probably overshadowed those caveats.
Oz is struggling with declining viewership — could better science help?
For a long time, Oz gained huge ratings with his brand of TV medicine. But over the past couple of years, viewership began to sag. According to the Associated Press, The Dr. Oz Show averaged 1.85 million viewers last season — a 50 percent drop from the 2011-'12 season.
That might be due to all the criticism he received. In April, a group of high-profile physicians and academics had questioned Oz's faculty position at Columbia University, calling the medical school's affiliation with its most famous employee "unacceptable." Shortly thereafter, Oprah Winfrey dropped Oz's radio segment, and the American Medical Association said it would figure out how to crack down on doctors in the media who violate their codes of ethics.
At first, Oz fought back against these criticisms, even at one point claiming — ridiculously — that his was not a medical show. (For the record, he's worn blue scrubs on every episode I watched.) But he later seemed to soften, and went on a summer listening tour with health professionals across the country. He does seem to be taking these criticisms seriously. All told, there was far more skepticism and talk of science in this season compared with similar episodes in previous seasons. Still, it remains to be seen if he can stick with this new format — while maintaining his popularity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the source of the April letter questioning Oz's faculty position.