The Medical Minute: Separating fact from fiction

September 24, 2003

By John Messmer, M.D.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Lose weight while you sleep -- without dieting! Such was the claim of Body Solutions until the Federal Trade Commission put an end to this deceptive marketing last year. Unfortunately, medical swindlers have been around about as long as there has been commerce.

Laetrile was big in the 1960s and 1970s as a cancer cure. It was eventually proven to have no benefit. Homeopathy continues to be popular, with homeopathic remedies being sold in traditional pharmacies, despite abundant research showing that extremely dilute chemicals have no effects. Magnets continue to be sold with claims of treating and preventing all sorts of medical problems, also without any substantial evidence.

When you hear or see an ad for something that is "all natural" or is "a breakthrough," the desire to believe often gets in the way of healthy skepticism. It's very easy to believe "it might work," particularly when faced with a medical problem. One might think in this modern age people would be less likely to accept a claim at face value, but unfortunately, with the Internet, snake oil peddling has gone high tech. And of course, some might argue it's human nature to chose the quick and easy solution even if it may not be the best solution. Whatever the cause, its important to educate yourself when it comes to any health remedy.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 443 Internet web sites and found that many failed to include the fact that the FDA had not evaluated their claims. Of the sites mentioning kava kava, a product that claims to help with sleep and anxiety, 39 percent did not warn about research linking it to liver disease.

The herbal loophole
Unlike prescription and over the counter drugs, herbal supplements are considered foods and do not have to prove what they claim. Even if claims are fraudulent, the FDA often can not keep up with policing manufacturers because they can easily close down and resume business under a different name.

How can you spot a fraudulent claim? The most important rule is: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When a product claims to fix just about anything or to cure something that is usually difficult to treat or incurable, it appeals to our sense of hope -- a very strong motivator. Often these products will make outrageous statements that the medical community is blocking its use because it is not marketed by one of the big pharmaceutical companies and there is no profit for them. The idea that the medical community would not use something that really works is simply preposterous.

Testimonials from patients are common in fraudulent ads. They are difficult to prove since you have no way of knowing whether the claimant actually had the disease and whether a cure was independently verified. Nor can you know whether it was standard medical treatment or the advertised product that worked.

Quick fix claims are a common ploy associated with fraudulent ads. "Cures in days" should be viewed with suspicion. Similarly, money back guarantees should raise questions. Often there is a long list of conditions necessary to get a refund, if the supplier can be found at all.

Be wary of claims such as "based on medical studies." These studies may be invalid scientifically or may be published in journals owned by the same company that sells the product. Another ploy is to list legitimate scientific studies about the problem to be treated, but the studies have nothing at all to do with the product. Claims such as "miracle cure," "revolutionary," "ancient secret," or similar are almost certain to be bogus.

Meaningless medical jargon also should be a warning sign. These technical and scientific sounding words suggest credibility to people without a scientific background. Ask yourself why they would be in an ad that is directed to non-scientists unless they are there for distraction.

So how do you sort out truth from hype? Talk to your own doctor. Contrary to the claims of snake oil peddlers, the medical community wants you to be healthy and would not withhold treatments that really work. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau to see if complaints have been lodged about the company, contact the Food and Drug Administration or go to http://www.fda.gov/ora/fed_state/DFSR_Activities/health_fraud.htm to see if there is information on the product.

Check out the appropriate organization for the disease under consideration for information on the claims. Or consult Penn State College of Medicine's George T. Harrell library's links to references on complementary and alternative medicine and supplements at http://www.hmc.psu.edu/library/links/alternative.htm

Remember, fiction may make for excellent bedtime reading, but fictional medical remedies will do little to improve your health.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009