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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Health Scams

Health scams – They’ve been around since snake oil salesmen, and long before. Current scams often center around weight loss, disease cures, and fitness.

The reason health care scams work so well is because they often prey on those who are frightened, sick, or in pain. Many live with a chronic or terminal disease for which science has not found a cure. Promised painless and quick “cures” are often not supported by proper scientific studies. Science almost always advances through small steps taken by a university or major scientific company. These advances quickly become well known within the scientific community. As both a doctor and a consumer, I’m well aware that Western medical science does not corner the market on knowledge and breakthroughs. However, it is my responsibility to my patients and to my readers to apply a logical scientific framework to my recommendations.

Have you heard of the hoodia plant, native to the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, which miraculously causes pounds to melt away? The Mayo Clinic wrote that “there is no conclusive evidence” to support the claim of appetite suppression. In addition, many “hoodia” products sold over the Internet contain no, or very little, hoodia! Nevertheless, sales are booming.

How about those colon cleansers that remove the stool that has sat in your colon for years, and needs to be flushed out? Stool actually accumulates in the colon for only a few days. The colon does a good job cleansing itself. On the other hand, undesirable and dangerous side effects from cleansing products are common. Unless you are preparing for a colonoscopy, leave your colon alone.

Male “enhancement” products have been around for a very long time. They simply do not work, and no scientific studies have proven otherwise. That goes for female “enhancement” products, as well. Have you bought “oxygenated” or “enhanced” bottled water? Try as they might, no one can make water smart, and adding low levels of a few vitamins is just not a big deal. There’s really nothing you can do to make water more healthful, aside from making sure that it’s clean. And then…you drink it. Don’t waste money on expensive, flavored, “enhanced” water.

Wouldn’t it be great if there really were anti-aging pills that lead to eternal youth? Aging is a normal process, and (surprise, surprise) getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and avoiding cigarettes and other drugs is still our best bet to age well.

Numerous scams promise cures for arthritis. The pain of arthritis comes and goes, and when symptoms improve, these unproven products are ready to take the credit. Be on the alert; “cures” include herbs, oils, chemicals, special diets, and even radiation. Always remember that testimonials are not scientific support. These treatments may or may not be harmful, but they are often quite costly.

It’s also easy to prey on the fears of those with cancer. In this case, unlike arthritis, using false products may lead to cancer victims losing valuable time and perhaps a chance for a real cure.

Some degree of memory loss is a part of aging. Smart pills, removal of amalgam dental fillings, and brain retraining exercises all sound good, but are examples of unproven and untested approaches. On the other hand, mental and physical activity can be helpful. There are also prescription medications that have been found to be effective in slowing or stopping some forms of dementia.

And about those snake oil salesmen…it bears mentioning that snake oil from the Chinese water snake has actually long been valued for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory qualities. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that salesmen in the UK and US sold a mineral oil-based product that gave snake oil salesmen their reputation as cheats and crooks! They used some of the following techniques, and these are the very techniques still in use. When evaluating a treatment that doesn’t come from your health care provider, watch for these warning signs:

  • Claims that the product is made from a special, secret, or ancient formula, or claims of limited availability

  • Use of testimonials or case histories

  • Claims that the product is effective for a wide range of problems

  • Claims that the product cures a disease that cannot yet be cured through medical science

  • Offers of an additional gift or a larger amount of the product as a special promotion if you act immediately

  • Requirement of an advance payment

How can we protect ourselves from health scams? Be wary. Ask intelligent questions about what you see or hear in ads and on the Internet. Needless to say, most newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and websites are not held responsible for checking the validity of the claims made by their advertisers. Do your own research. Do not be pressured into rash decisions. Finally, never hesitate to discuss any treatment you are considering with your doctor.

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