Have you ever followed advice from Dr. Oz? I have. Always looking for ways to boost energy, I tried some amino acid supplements that Dr. Oz suggested on his show a few years ago. I’m not a die-hard follower of his show, but I discovered a clip on Sharecare about the supplements. They had some research backing and weren’t expensive, so I decided to try them. They helped, and I still find those supplements helpful today.

Since then, I noticed more and more products claim a tie to or endorsement from Dr. Oz. I assumed the products were exaggerating his involvement, but it appears I was wrong. The FDA called Dr. Oz to testify about his endorsement or showcasing of supplements as “magical” or “simple solutions” that have little scientific backing and, of course, no FDA approval.

The result of that hearing? A dramatic public illustration of the tension between getting attention (and consequently an audience for advertisers) and maintaining credibility.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true…So why, when you have this amazing megaphone…why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”

Dr. Oz: “When we write a script, we need to generate enthusiasm and engage the viewer.”

The line between giving people what they want and giving people what they need (or what the truth is) is fuzzy, isn’t it? In “Clout,” I put it like this.

The more clout you have, often the less you have to prove your credibility or provide lots of evidence. Why? Because users [audiences] assume you’re continuing the due diligence that earned you clout in the first place. That puts the burden on you to ensure that what you say is accurate and based in reality. Will your brand, idea, product, or service really deliver what your web content promises and supports? Are you helping users make good decisions that are not only in your best interests but also in theirs? If not, you risk violating your users’ trust in a big way.

John Oliver does an outstanding job illustrating how Dr. Oz (and all of the TV and web media properties that use his content) uses his medical persona to endorse what, at times, amounts to lose weight quick or stay young forever schemes.

Here’s the rub….

I actually like how Dr. Oz’s show explores solutions other than prescription medications. I also like how he mentions solutions with promising, though not complete, research behind them. Why? Because that’s an antidote to pharma-dominated advertising for media properties such as WebMD. Mentioning these solutions also exposes a longstanding weakness in the health arena, which is the painfully slow pace of innovation.

When I worked for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I was disturbed at times by the tortoiselike release of useful guidance. Almost every guideline and recommendation has to be supported by a systematic review of the scientific literature. In English, that means scientists have to review all of the published research studies about the topic and decide whether the results are strong enough to merit a recommendation or guideline. Simply reviewing the studies, much less conducting the studies, takes years. S-l-o-w. (I have ideas for ways to speed this up, but that’s fodder for another post.) I never would have learned about amino acids if talking about them had to wait for a review process that slow.

Unfortunately, Dr. Oz’s show and related content took things too far. Exploring alternative or innovative health solutions doesn’t mean tout every new supplement or superfood like a snakeoil salesman. Now, we’re seeing a backlash. One medical student has been so concerned about the way patients use Dr. Oz to justify questionable health decisions that he started a movement for new regulatory policy.

So, credibility in health media (traditional and online) is ailing again. I’m very concerned about this setback, but I’m optimistic the long term prognosis for health media credibility can be good with the right changes. Some changes I’d like to see explored include

  • Paid subscription models with limited advertising in the free version.
  • Better guidance on discussing supplements and alternative solutions with a doctor.
  • Clear explanation of possible risks of supplements, superfoods, or any solution taken to an extreme. (WebMD and PubMed have a starts on this.)
  • Better planning overall of how content published by health media will affect people’s trust in their own doctors and nurses; position health media as a partner, not an enemy.
  • A rating scale of the amount of research / evidence supporting supplements or alternative solutions.
  • More creative, engaging presentation of basic good health practices.

Our Health Content + Credibility Brief outlines other essential considerations, too.

I’d hate to see regulation come into play here because the health industry is already plagued by slow communication. I’d much prefer to see health media do the right thing not because they have to but because it’s in the best interest of their audiences and, ultimately, their own businesses.

Of course, health media are only one set of players in the health content game. I’ll share more perspective on credibility within the health content ecosystem in a future post.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in September 2014.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the founder and CEO of Content Science, a growing content intelligence and strategy company based in Atlanta GA. Content Science owns Content Science Review, Content Science Academy, and the content effectiveness software ContentWRX.  Colleen regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content. She shares insights and guidance from her experience regularly on Content Science Review, at events around the world, and in highly rated books such as Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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