Health Scares: A Time to Teach

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Health Scares: A Time to Teach

Dylan J. Chadwick


Recent Ebola incidents in the US have put the disease front and center on most peoples "danger" list. With any health scare (without even consulting Google I can think of West Nile virus and swine flu in the last decade) comes the inevitable rise of internet hysteria surrounding them. In said hysteria, social media sites become ample “soap boxing” platforms for well-meaning (but occasionally misinformed) citizens to air out their fears and anxieties, pushing the topic further into public consciousness while also fanning flames of unfounded fears and misinformation around it all.


This isn't any attempt to diminish the gravity of an Ebola infection, but given the nature of “24 Hour News Entertainment” and the glut of faulty information freely available on the web, many of even the most keenly health-conscious citizens may not always be getting the clearest, most competent health information. This can often implicitly lead to even greater hysteria and in some cases, outright danger.


Fraudulent Health Info

How prevalent is “bad” health info? Prevalent enough that the Food and Drug Administration has issued its own warning about "health fraud scams" about Ebola alone. The FBI even has posted official warnings on their site for those concerned about ‘health fraud scams.’


More often than not, these scams involve the production of miracle products which promise to cure the symptoms and existence of Ebola in every way possible from holistic herbal treatments to self-proclaimed “miracle drugs.’ For many, it's not difficult to spot a sham treatment. Generally speaking, I can (except back in the mid 00’s when I got snared in a PayPal phishing scam and lost $78 on DJ equipment to Aruba) and I'm sure more than a few got suckered into that financial proposition sent by some unknown Nigerian royalty. Some of us are just more internet-literate than others (and age and generational factors certainly play a part). Bring healthcare into that picture and you run into even more problems. Predatory marketing techniques and quack products which lack scientific credibility (and don't cure anything) only obscure genuine treatment options, perpetuate hysterical attitudes and sometimes exploiting a consumer's own paranoia to convince them they have Ebola symptoms.


Steering Patients into the Clear

Though there's a good chance as a physician, you haven't come directly into contact with Ebola, you've quite possibly fielded some questions on it, or something similar. Some navigating the newly reformed landscape are banking on years of accredited medical training, while some maintain the discerning eye of a dedicated internet consumer. Some aren’t as capable of sniffing a dud when they see a miracle cure for Ebola though, and that's not their fault.


In a recent KevinMD article, Neil Baum MD highlights 5 specific questions one can ask (or teach patients to ask themselves) when confronted with a questionable health product on the internet, especially relevant in this time of Ebola scares:


1.         Does is claim to cure EVERYTHING? Oftentimes, fraudulent health products will promise to cure ‘all that ails' boasting a wide berth of medicinal cures varying from the standard aches and pains all the way to terminal diseases. Medical professionals and smart shoppers understand that by and large, there is no “one size fits all” treatment for these maladies and encourage health consumers to take this into account when dealing with any which proclaim too wide a net. Consider also: if it seems too good to be true, it very likely is.


2 .Is there a product being sold? Any medical treatment which insists that you pay for an E-book or buy into a multi-level marketing scheme likely doesn’t have your health interests in mind, only your checkbook. Health consumers should be especially skeptical of any products which insist you buy their product before gaining access to the health information.


3. Has the product ‘worked’ on thousands of anonymous users? Product testimonials are nothing new. Unfortunately, they’re not too difficult to manufacture on the internet. Odds are you’ve seen a stock photo of a smiling product user giving a glowing review of said product in a city curiously close to yours. Patients should be encouraged not to accept anonymous product testimonials as legitimate endorsements of a treatment’s efficacy. They should also pay special attention to any testimonials boasting only an individual’s initials.


4. Is this a medical secret “doctors don’t want you to know about?” First off, take any conspiratorial claims should be taken with a pinch (or table box) of salt here. Any assertion that approx. 600,000 medical physicians in this country are in cahoots with the government to keep a health treatment out of the hands of the public? It makes for a good dystopian sci-fi flick, but it's hardly realistic.


5. Are there any peer-reviewed medical studies supporting the product’s claims? This really should be the grand-daddy of all “tip-offs” to a treatment’s efficacy. Any absence of peer-reviewed literature means an ineffective product, or at the very least, one that's not proven to work by anyone with any credibility. Of course, this also highlights the cultural divide between advocates of holistic treatments and those who scorn them completely.


Essentially though, if a patient can answer "yes" to any of the following questions, the treatment is dubious should be avoided. Obviously, this can't account for the charged values of internet hysteria and the power of fear-based health claims which can be very difficult to refute amidst all the noise for everyone vying for the attention of vulnerable people.


Given the current climate of disease hysteria and risk for misinterpreting information (example: many still don't know that Ebola is not an airborne disease but can only be contracted by coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected with the disease) it will always be the job of the health professionals not only to dispense health care but to also lead patients to salient healthcare. Words are medicine when the disease is bad information.



Baum, Neil,Baum, Neil, MD. "Health Information on the Internet: 5 Questions to Ask." KevinMD, 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014. MD. "Health Information

on the Internet: 5 Questions to Ask." KevinMD, 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 13

Oct. 2014.


FDA. "For Consumers." Health Fraud Scams. FDA, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.


FBI. "Common Fraud Schemes." FBI, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.


Pirone, Carmine. "I Walked Into An Apple Store And Bent An IPhone 6 Plus." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.