Cure or quackery? How to tell the difference

A clinic in Berlin claims to improve failing vision with electrical pulses that stimulate retinal cells.

A neighbor tells you to take ivermectin to avoid getting COVID-19.

A doctor on an infomercial says cancer patients can cure themselves by following a certain diet.

Are these examples of the medical "establishment" holding back or ignoring information? Or are they examples of quackery?

Sometimes it's hard to tell, because even the most outlandish-sounding claims may have an element of truth in them. And if someone with a serious condition is frightened, even desperate, they may be more prone to believe what they hear.

Quacks have been around as long as people have practiced medicine. The Science History Institute in Philadelphia says the term derives from quacksalver, a Dutch word for someone who sells medical cures of dubious origins.

In some cases, what seems like quackery today may be proven science tomorrow. Case in point: In the late 18th century, Edward Jenner inoculated a boy against smallpox using cowpox blisters from a milkmaid. I'm sure someone thought he was a dangerous quack, even though now we consider him the father of immunology.

In times of health crises, whether it was the Black Death in Europe, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic or our current COVID-19 pandemic, people are apt to listen to anyone who says they have a cure.

"The need to get better, fear of failing treatment and fear of death can drive people's expectations so much that they are willing to believe almost anything," Dr. David Gitlin, chief of medical psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital, told the medical website Healthline.

This was evident in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when quack cures and treatments ranged from mattresses, saunas and protective pendants to toxic plants and chemicals. Arthur Caplan of the New York University School of Medicine told Kaiser Health News: "Anything online, ignore it."

But you can't blame people for being confused. Doctors and hospitals were desperately trying drugs for other conditions as possible COVID treatments - definitely not a good way to conduct medical research!

How can you tell if something is medically sound or quackery? Do your homework - and by homework I don't mean watching YouTube or going down a Facebook rabbit hole.

When evaluating medical claims, look for some of these common terms or expressions:

• The secret your doctor won't tell you.

• Treat the underlying true cause, not the symptoms.

• Beware of "Big Pharma."

• This is a breakthrough!

• Established medicine isn't the only medicine.

Consider the source, even if they're medical professionals. TV "experts" like Dr. Mehmet Oz have been criticized for spreading medical misinformation. Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician in Florida, is among the 12 people identified as spreading the most anti-vaccine messaging on Facebook. And, really, do you want to follow medical advice from a radio talk show host?

Don't take one person's word for anything, and don't rely on anecdotal "testimonials." Avoid confirmation bias by seeking out opinions different from yours. Be sure to consult authoritative websites, such as the CDC, Food and Drug Administration, WebMD and those affiliated with major research hospitals.

Don't go it alone. Ask friends or family members to help you search and review your findings.

And now, I'll revisit the medical claims from the start of the column. As you will see, two have a kernel of truth.

• Electrical stimulation as a treatment for vision disorders: Possibly true. According to a 2016 study, "Evolving research has provided evidence that noninvasive electrical stimulation of the eye may be a promising therapy." Not a slam-dunk, but maybe worth more research.

• Ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19: False. Ivermectin is approved for human use to treat certain parasitic conditions, but is not FDA-approved for COVID. According to the FDA: "Currently available data do not show ivermectin is effective against COVID-19. Clinical trials assessing ivermectin tablets for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 in people are ongoing." So stay tuned. And do not use ivermectin intended for animals.

• Diets to treat cancer: Partly true. According to the National Cancer Institute, "Nutrition therapy is used to help cancer patients keep a healthy body weight, maintain strength, keep body tissue healthy and decrease side effects both during and after treatment." But while a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce your cancer risk, there is no food that can cure cancer.

In our age of invasive social media, Google searches and conspiracy theories, it's easy to be misled when it comes to medical information. It's more important than ever to watch out for quacks.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.

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