Even in the day of the Information Superhighway, patients take the wrong exit to Misinformation Ave. Protoscience, pseudoscience, anti-science, spiritualism, mysticism and plain falsehoods flood some minds at the speed of thought, thanks to the overwhelming white noise of all the advertising methods in existence.
Each day I power on my computer, I am bombarded by dozens of ads for colon cleanses, cancer cures, depression eradication methods, an — my personal giggle switch — male enhancement.
After more than 7 years in emergency, sports, and urgent care medicine, I have not only learned to avoid the many false leads that spew from media, but have encountered hundreds, if not thousands, who haven’t. Whether it’s a patient who’s developed dyspepsia from downing a gallon of Dr. Oz’s latest miracle fruit juice, or stories of African Witch Doctors (if that’s even the politically correct term these days) who murder albinos and grind their bones into AIDS cures, the consequences can range from discomfort to death. Colleagues who have practices in Clearwater, FL, tell me of Scientologists whose spiritual advisers sign them out with life-threatening conditions. Others who have worked with MSF or gone on mission trips tell me of poisonous wonder drugs from the Sub-Saharan region.
All these dangerous concoctions have one thing in common: They’re near impossible to talk their believers out of. It’s always a touchy subject when someone asks you about some breaking news story from last week, or tells you they’ve been eating raw seeds from local plants and think they may have a B16 deficiency. You’ll either be met with hostility or a barrage of “why” on the level of a 4-year-old if you question the weight of science vs. their beliefs and the word of Oprah. Try explaining that B16 is not only not a true B vitamin — but not a vitamin at all — and you may have something thrown at you. Tell a mother that her son’s autism isn’t caused by immunizations, and she’ll demand a new potential cause. “We don’t know what it is, but it isn’t immunizations” isn’t good enough.
I’ve found only one surefire way to deal with quackery that doesn’t cause massive fallout. Don’t. Don’t deal with it. If you don’t have to mention something, ignore it. Don’t start a land war in Southeast Asia, don’t fight the Russians in winter, don’t talk about politics with college students, and don’t address these beliefs. You give fuel to arguments that doctors are trying to hide the truth for those who feel that way, and you’ll offend those who are easily offended. Let them take their $50 a jar krill oil, suggest they boil their seeds to save their jaws, and tell them to take 20-minute breaks from floating in their sensory deprivation tanks to prevent hypothermia, but never tell them they’re wrong. A patient’s belief in nondamaging nonsense is between them, their wallet, and their “Doctor.”
In the middle ages, people took potions for their ailments. In the 19th century they took snake oil. Citizens of today’s shiny, technological age are too modern for that. They take antioxidants and extract of cactus instead.
— Charles Krauthammer
Sam Goldstein is an ED Technician and Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician currently working in a large urban emergency department. He has spent the last several years working in both field and clinical settings for various agencies and hospitals, as well as with the US military.