NEW YORK – During a self-prescribed listening tour with physicians groups this summer, Mehmet Oz learned just how much it annoyed many doctors when their patients say, "I heard on 'Dr. Oz'..."
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It's been a humbling stretch for the heart surgeon who built his own successful talk show after being introduced to the world by Oprah Winfrey. Critics, including some in Congress, scolded the hyperactive health evangelist for promoting questionable diet aids he's since sworn off. In April, a group of 10 doctors urged that he be removed from Columbia University's medical faculty, accusing him of promoting "quack treatments." His show has lost half its viewers over the past five years.
"Heal thyself" is now the goal, as Oz tries to recalibrate and save his program, which begins a seventh season Monday.
He privately sought feedback this summer from doctors' groups of various specialties. Some agreed to meet with him, some didn't.
"We're on the same team of trying to make people healthier, which I think everyone can agree is the case, even if you disagree with how I do it, even if you don't like the entertainment aspect of it," he said. "I get all that."
What he didn't realize was how he'd become a symbol for a development in health care that many doctors feel threatened by. Patients today often go for check-ups after Googling for information on what ails them or listening to advice from their favorite television doctor. In some respects, it intrudes on the physician-patient relationship, and Oz said he understands how irritating that can be.
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Oz has taken steps to mend fences, hiring a doctor to improve his show's communication with the medical community. Since many doctors hear their patients quote Oz but don't know what he actually said, the outreach effort will make it easier for them to find out, and will alert specialists when the show addresses topics in the area of their expertise.
He found the listening tour rewarding. "It was a very good investment of my time to hear from these folks, and it was very hard for me not to speak more," he said.
When his name was in headlines last spring, Oz said he was buoyed by support from his parents, Winfrey, his surgical partner and other doctors from Columbia.
"It didn't change our reputation among our viewers," he said. "That we know and we have data on. The viewers see the show every day and they knew a lot of the accusations weren't on target. I don't know about physicians. They don't watch the show, so it's hard to tell."
"The Dr. Oz Show" averaged 3.8 million viewers in 2011-12 and 1.85 million for the season that ended in May, the Nielsen company said. The show's switch from ABC to lower-profile Fox affiliates in several markets, along with some stations cutting airtimes from twice to once a day, has impacted ratings, said Holly Jacobs, executive vice president of U.S. reality and syndicated programming for Sony Pictures Television. Jacobs said Sony stands behind Oz and has him under contract through 2017.
But Oz's reputation among consumers has clearly taken a hit. His positive "Q'' score peaked at 32 in winter 2011, meaning 32 percent of people who knew him considered Oz one of their favorite personalities. Now it is down to 15, below the average of just above 18, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc. The percentage of people viewing him negatively rose from 15 percent to 35 percent in the same period, the company said.
This season is important for Oz to determine his long-term viability, said Bill Carroll, an expert on the syndication market for the Katz Television Group.
"In general, programs with a single focus have a more difficult time than shows that are broader and are able to use celebrities in a different way," Carroll said. "The uniqueness he brought to the audience is no longer unique. It has become a little more routine. He's the hardest working guy in television but there comes a point where you have to reinvent yourself and I think that's what they are going to attempt to do this year."
Oz distributes a detailed outline of themes for his new season (diet aids not among them). "The Healthy Mind Project" will delve into the areas of mental health, addiction and happiness. He wants to help viewers navigate a glut of information, with one show devoted to teaching viewers the best way to search online for reliable health information.
Producers aim to stretch out the show to add depth. "The Dr. Oz Show" has frequently operated like a magazine, with different topics introduced after each commercial break, and now Oz plans to stay on certain topics for more time. Viewers are telling him they want to spend more time with their television doctor, to "hold my hand, metaphorically speaking," he said.
Oz said he never considered abandoning the show. He heard from viewers who told him that they had helped people having a seizure after seeing instruction on Oz's show, or interacting with someone about to commit suicide. He's turning these stories into a future episode, about tips to save lives.
"When I hear this, and I see it all the time, there's no way I wouldn't want to do this to the best of my ability," he said.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder