How to Spot Fake Medical News
Anatomy of a Fake Medical News Article
This post was inspired by a recent interaction between myself and a friend. She had shared a blog entry/news article promoting a spurious cure for stage four cancer. When I, to be kind, confronted her about it, her initial response was on the level of: “how was I to know?”
She is correct. As a medical professional, I still fall into the trap of thinking that what is obvious to me should be obvious to everyone. It isn’t.
Recalling a previous post I had made about spotting red flags when it comes to individuals who may be out to scam patients (Link) I then decided to come up with a similar guide but with fake news or blog articles pertaining to medicine.
Now, I have to make one thing clear. I am not in the habit of discriminating against articles just because they come from a particular website or was written by a particular author. I don’t like to generalize. Therefore, I won’t label anything as fake just because so-and-so said it.
How to spot fake news: the steps
Not all have to be present.
1) Watch out for certain buzzwords
This is obviously not a hard and fast rule. Many reputable media outlets have fallen into the trap of using buzzwords in order to generate more clicks. However, the presence of particular buzzwords in articles promoting medical information should lead us to have a higher index of suspicion.
“you’ve been lied to”, “cover up”, “doctors don’t want you to know”
No one likes to be lied to. No one likes to be deceived. Hence, the presence of this phrase immediately gets out attention and makes us wonder what we are being lied to about. This is usually used to lead to an article claiming a secret cure that the powers-that-be is withholding from the public for whatever reason. Because of our instinct of wanting to find out the “truth”. We end up swallowing the bait. Yup, we are being lied to. The question is, by whom?
“shock”, “shocking” or whatever; “breakthrough
Sometimes an easy way to catch your attention is to say that a piece of news “shocks” doctors and scientists. I mean hey, if it’s enough to shock scientists, then it must be big, right? The idea is that the “discovery” is so amazing, so new, or so under-the-radar-so-how-the-heck-did-we-miss-it, that doctors are stunned.
Honestly, the only thing shocking me about these insane articles and their claims is that people actually believe them! Here is a general rule: if it’s too good to be true, it usually is. Unless of course, it’s backed up by research.
“melt fat away”
Guys. There is no way to lose weight without effort. I know. Any article that says that (fill in the blank) guarantees weight loss is only guaranteed to make the customer lose money.
People are afraid of surgery. That is a given. I mean, who WANTS to have people cut them open? Not I, not anyone I know. Well except maybe for those addicted to cosmetic surgery, but I digress.
The easiest way to scam someone is to say that a particular non invasive treatment will eliminate the need for surgery. This is especially true for tumors or stones. While there ARE legitimate ways to achieve this, seeing this buzzword in an article should caution the reader into taking extra care not to be fooled.
“stronger than chemotherapy”
This catchphrase has always befuddled me. On the one hand, most quacks and scammers will say that “chemo doesn’t work” when it comes to cancer. If it doesn’t work, then what’s the point of saying that a substance is stronger or more powerful than chemo? If chemo is useless then anything stronger than it will still be useless. It’s like multiplying zero by a million – you still get zero.
But what if what they mean is that a substance has an anti-cancer effect more effective than chemo? We still have to ask, what specific drug are they talking about? There are a gazillion chemo drugs and they work differently. One substance is works in as many ways as all of them?
And even if something is actually more effective than chemo in killing cancer cells, we have to ask the following question: Does it work only in the laboratory or in actual patients? I mean I’m very sure muriatic acid is stronger than any chemotherapeutic agent when it comes to killing cancer cells, but no one in their right mind would administer muriatic acid to a patient.
This is the word that launches a thousand fads. I’m a big fan of dietary therapy. However to say that certain edible items are “super” foods are to overemphasize their effectiveness. The way they market these superfoods sometimes, you get the feeling you’ll die if you don’t eat them.
Cured himself with some product that he’s now selling. Right. Also, I dare these people to say what’s their basis for curing themselves. They “feel” better?
I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones I see a lot. On to number 2.
2) Side effects of prescription drugs are highlighted
Yup, there are articles out there that emphasize that pharmaceutical drugs have so many side effects and that you can substitute natural foods or herbs to avoid these side effects. The problem is that this attitude is wrong on so many levels.
Firstly, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s free from side effects. Heck. when I studied herbs in China half of what I studied was side effects (and how to ameliorate them, but that’s another story).
Secondly, yes WE DOCTORS know about the side effects of prescription drugs. We are not stupid. We also weigh in our heads on whether a particular drug or treatment is worth the risk of giving it. That’s why sometimes we recommend surgery, sometimes we don’t.
And to give an interesting example: Red yeast rice is marketed as an alternative to statins. However, they work the same way as statins. Hence, they have a similar side effect profile to statins! So, when I am asked as to whether to take statins or red yeast rice (assuming of course, I feel the patient needs it. Most of the time I don’t.), I reply “whichever one you can get cheaper, assuming the red yeast rice isn’t fake”.
3) Unverifiable Information
An article will tell a story about a certain person like John Doe “cured himself” or was cured by some radical treatment. It will also say that “he went for a checkup” and was found disease free.
Problem: a search for John Doe turns up nothing. We are never told how old he is, or when he was diagnosed, or who his doctor is. Nothing. We also aren’t told where the tests were done, or when, or in what institution, or even what test was done to show he was disease free.
The few readers of my blog will notice that as much as possible, I post actual lab results. These guys never do. Not even numbers.
Makes me wonder if they actually DID any lab results in the first place.
4) Vague Definitions of Cure
In medicine, we have definitions of diagnosis, and we have parameters to help us judge if a person is “cured” or if a cancer is in “remission”. For example, it’s not enough for us to see that a tumor has disappeared. To be sure, we have to follow up at regular intervals to check for return of cancer. That’s why we have 1 year, 3 year and 5 year survival rate statistics.
The genuine article will say mention the parameters for cures. For example, a legit study will say that a new drug reduced tumor size by so and so, or reduced blood sugar levels by this or that percentage.
The fake article will just say “cure”, with little or no explanation as to how the cure is defined.
5) The Ivy League Scientist
Many of these fake articles will mention that a doctor or scientist from some famous university breaks their silence to “tell the truth”. In this case, I usually cross check such scientists’ name with repositories of scientific articles, like PUBMED. Usually nothing.
But you already saw “Princeton” or “Harvard” and was impressed.
6) Stretching the Studies
Granted, there are some cases where the fake news does mention authentic studies. An example I recall has to do with cannabis. Cannabis is a materia medica with a gazillion different compounds in it. These “cannabinoids” are special compounds that, one by one, may also be found in other plants. Now there are many studies that show this or that cannabinoid having a beneficial effect. The articles then cite this as absolute proof that cannabis (the whole plant) is beneficial and that this info is being ignored.
What IS being ignored is the fact that the same studies (once you actually read them) say that the authors considered using the whole cannabis plant except for the psychotropic side effects.
Also, the cannabinoid is beneficial – so why not isolate the particular cannabinoid and administer THAT?
Another way a study is stretched is (name substance) kills cancer cells. However, the study only says that the substance does so in the laboratory. Again, it is one thing for a substance to kill cells in a petri dish, but another to actually have it work in the body. Note than when I cite herbal studies I always mention if the effect is measured clinically versus in a lab.
7) Off Label Use of Traditional Herbs
Traditional use can roughly be translated into “this is what we’ve been using this herb for for a long time.” It sort of reflects the “tried and true”. A popular tactic is to take a popular materia medica and establish all sorts of uses for it that aren’t traditional anymore.
For example, when I am asked about the Chinese medicinal uses of marijuana, I only say one thing. Namely, that the common traditional use of cannabis is the use of the seed in formulas to assist in constipation. Anything else is not “traditional use”.
Because of this, people now think that traditional herbs are panaceas. That they are cure alls. The sad part about this is that if they are disappointed that the off label use doesn’t happen, they then get disappointed with the herb itself or with traditional medicine itself.
8) Name Dropping
Otto Warburg won the Nobel Prize. He said some stuff about cancer. Somehow this transformed his Nobel Prize from what it was (studying respiratory enyzmes) into “discovering the cause of cancer”.
But since if you google Otto Warburg, you’ll see he ACTUALLY won a nobel prize, you’ll assume the rest of the article is true.
The fact of the matter is that Otto Warburg’s theories on cancer were proven wrong.
9) No side effects
Any article that claims a cure and adds “and no side effects” or claims a lack of side effects should raise a red flag. My principle is that anytime a substance has powerful therapeutic effects, then it is safe to assume that it’s misuse can lead to not only side effects, but adverse effects.
Granted that there are substances with minimal side effects, any article that claims no side effects requires further scrutiny.
10) “Holisitic Doctor Silenced”
“(insert name here) killed because he spoke out against vaccines or whatever” is such a common headline now that it should make me fear for my life. Right.
Police have now confirmed that they are treating the death of 59-year-old old Dr. Juan Gonzalez, a board certified holistic doctor, as a homicide; he was found dead in his natural health clinic. I have been contacted by immediate family members, patients, friends regarding his death. He was well loved. Our heart goes out to all of them. Patients have emailed (and even posted in the comments below) that Dr Gonzalez was treating cancer patients- successfully. In fact, he had (allegedly) asked a few to testify as he had some upcoming court dates, apparently for treating said cancer patients. As we all know, the government doesn’t like holistic doctors treating cancer patients. If you click here you can access the full list of 60+ doctors and their stories, who have been found dead in the last year and a half. Just this last week 48 hours and Criminal Minds (both on CBS national television) showed my collages and or quoted my site and this uninteded series. Sadly, neither named my site (I’m not surprised), as that would give the people too much info. My mission is not to let their stories die.
Yet, let’s look at another source: (http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/03/10/widower-slain-naturopath-said-chemotherapy-is-for-losers/)
They said Gonzalez told them that “chemotherapy is for losers” and guaranteed he could cure her within three months. Instead, despite spending $7,000 on herbal treatments, dietary counseling, massages and foot baths, she developed even more tumors, according to the lawsuit, which sought compensatory and punitive damages. As the couple saw Gonzalez from January through May last year, what began as one tumor turned into seven. The original tumor grew so large it could be seen outside her body, while her eyes turned yellow and her legs became swollen, the lawsuit said. The suit said the couple consulted other experts who said Gonzalez had administered so many herbs that Ibrisevic had a toxic reaction. She belatedly underwent chemotherapy, but it couldn’t save her.
Now I’m not saying that it is correct to go out and take justice into one’s own hands and murder quacks and scammers (or anyone, really), how can these facts transform from this story to “government is silencing holistic doctors?”
In fact, in some cases, a little research will show that the “Doctors” reported in these articles aren’t even alternative practitioners. Snopes has written an article on the matter (http://www.snopes.com/2015/07/21/five-holistic-doctors-dead/)
When some spurious article mentions Dr. Patrick Fitzpatrick as a holistic doctor hit job, snopes writes:
Actually, Dr. Patrick Fitzpatrick of Bismarck, North Dakota was last seen on 2 July 2015. Dr. Fitzpatrick did not seem a likely candidate for a massive big pharma hit job, nor was he an “alternative health” practitioner of any description. Articles published about his disappearance described him as a retiredophthalmologist known for forays into nature preserves, who’d grown increasingly frail in recent years:
Lisa Riley, DO was listed as a holistic doctor who was killed in mysterious circumstances. Unfortunately it was forgotten that while osteopathy is considered holistic, in the United States, they are considered conventional and not alternative. In fact, Lisa Riley was practicing a very conventional branch of medicine:
Lisa M. Riley, 34, was indeed a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and not an MD, but her field of practice was listed as the decidedly uncontroversial “emergency medicine.” If Dr. Riley had cause to murderously enrage the medical establishment, that cause was well hidden.
Firstly, don’t just believe everything you read on the internet. There is so much freedom of information out there that it’s easy for misinformation to come in.
Secondly, I recommend websites such as https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ and http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/default.aspx to help people research herbs.
Lastly: Keep an open mind, but don’t leave the door too open to let garbage in.