Calling out internet doctors for making false claims in order to sell their products and services
Before I begin, I want to make clear that I am not a doctor, nor do I hold any degrees in the field of medicine. My degrees are in social work and psychology and I am not here to give any medical advice, so this is written in relation to mental health treatments and support for people divergent brains.
I’ve noticed some poignant instances of cognitive dissonance in the public discourse of late, so I wanted to take a minute (or several) and unpack some of the rhetoric I’ve read.
Conspiracy theories abound
There are people who accuse general practitioners (i.e. family doctors) of trying to push medicine for profit, of being “in the pockets” of Big Pharma.
Those are often the same people who are anti-vax conspiracy theorists, who take the word of Internet memes over experts, and possibly even believe the earth is flat.
What I don’t understand is, if you don’t trust Modern Medicine, then why do you trust these Internet doctors?
Check those credentials
Licensed physicians are accountable to their governing body. Here in Canada that’s the Medical Council of Canada (MCC), but there are equivalents around the world, such as the American Medical Association (AMA).
There are also provincial, territorial, and state regulatory authorities whose job it is to protect the public and promote the safe and ethical delivery of quality medical care.
Those standards only apply to licensed and registered physicians. Someone can still be a medical doctor, call themselves Dr., yet not be licensed. For example, if they went to med school but are now selling nutraceuticals or other homeopathic “remedies” and not prescribing real medicine, then they no longer require a license to practice.
Some of these non-practicing doctors can earn a substantial income selling books, hosting online workshops, teaching courses, and selling tickets to their speaking appearances.
Someone with a PhD can use the designation Dr., such as psychologists with a doctorate degree. This does not mean that psychologists are not well-qualified to support neurodivergent people, they absolutely are — and some are qualified to diagnose and treat certain mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Psychologists are limited in the treatments they can recommend, and here in Canada, psychologists cannot prescribe medications. Psychologists are also accountable to their provincial, territorial, or state regulatory associations. If they practice outside their scope of expertise they can be sanctioned or lose their certification.
Where am I going with this?
When a medical doctor recommends a treatment, or prescribes a medication, they must be able to give a solid argument supporting the reason they chose this course of treatment.
Does that mean doctors never step outside the lines, or prescribe things they shouldn’t?
There are many who have been caught and have lost their license to practice, and I’m sure many who have not (yet) been caught.
There are some protections for patients if they are mistreated. There is a system of accountability in place to keep doctors in line and prevent, or at least reduce, the likelihood of these types of things occurring.
These systems are run by human beings, and therefore imperfect, but they do exist.
Meanwhile, over in “natural remedies” and supplements, there are little to no laws preventing people from making unsubstantiated claims about the homeopathic product they are selling.
Note: I accidentally typed homeo-pathetic, instead of homeopathic, and I thought it was hilarious, so I thought I’d share that with you all for your amusement.
The laws will differ by region and country, of course, but in Canada we have Natural Health Products Regulations under the Food and Drugs Act. These only pertain to the safety of the supplements.
Non-prescription health product labels cannot claim to treat or cure specific ailments, but beyond that, there is no legal requirement to prove the claims made on these products.
Most of them contain very vague, broad statements such as “boost your immune system”, “boost cognitive function”, “improve mood”, “improve whole body health” and the like. These products rely on the placebo effect and make claims that are so general you can neither prove nor disprove them.
Not only this, but real doctors who have moved away from the traditional medical system and are selling supplements, books, courses, and more — they’re the same ones who have made “amazing” discoveries about various conditions.
The doctors who are no longer publishing peer-reviewed scientific articles, and are now writing opinion-based books for profit, are the ones who make grandiose claims like Dr. Amen’s “Seven Types of A.D.D.”
These (former) doctors boast of their unprecedented discoveries and exclusive treatments, only available using their one-of-a-kind patented approach, of course.
Natural is neither good nor bad
Some people have this rose-coloured glasses view of nature; a belief that anything natural must be good and cannot be harmful.
Um, have you seen a nature documentary recently?
Nature’s a bitch.
Plenty of herbal products can still have side effects, and can even interact with actual medications, or other with supplements. Even if it’s an off-the-shelf homeopathic product, it’s still better to check with a medical professional before adding it to your regimen.
Just as some of the products are expensive sugar pills and will do absolutely nothing, some could be helpful. For example, if someone actually has a nutrient deficiency, then taking a supplement will probably* help.
*Not medical advice, just mathematics.
Similarly, I’m sure there are some homeopathic practitioners who may be extremely good at what they do. They may have formal medical training, stick to a strict code of ethics, and practice holistic medicine rather than peddle unnecessary and expensive placebos.
The time and money a patient spends chasing a “cure” or pursuing a “natural remedy” rather than following their real doctor’s advice can make it more difficult for the real doctor to treat what ails them, or even figure out what is wrong in the first place.
The draw of homeopathy
A 2013 study done in Germany came to a very interesting conclusion about what drew people to homeopathic medicine, despite having access to universal public health care.
Resoundingly, the primary reason people preferred seeing their homeopathic practitioner over their family doctor was the amount of time spent with them, and feeling genuinely cared about.
“…it proved to be very important that during the initial contact ‘genuine interest’ on the part of the homeopathic medical practitioner was experienced in terms of the individual patient and [their] symptoms.”
My fellow Canadians will relate, I’m sure. We are very fortunate to have publicly funded healthcare, but this frequently leads to long wait times, over-worked staff, and over-booked doctors. Many patients constantly feel rushed through medical appointments.
For example, in this study, the average length of the initial consult with the homeopathic practitioner was 2 hours. In Canada, the average appointment time is 10 minutes in length, and in the U.S., the average appointment is about 15 minutes long.
As someone with chronic health issues, 10 minutes actually seems long to me. I don’t think my doctor spends more than 5 minutes with me during my visits, and that is not a criticism of my doctor, I think he’s quite good given the working conditions.
My doctor works from about 7:30am-5:30pm, at least five days per week, as well as rotating shifts at the walk-in clinic on evenings or weekends.
We had a brief conversation about this after he returned from a very short parental leave and he was clearly exhausted from having a newborn at home and working at least 50 hours per week. I’ve also had the same doctor for 15 years, so I know a little bit about how his clinic operates.
My GP sees patients from about 8:30am-4:30pm Mondays through Thursdays, 8am-1pm on Fridays, and does a surgical rotation Friday afternoons. If we pretend he gets an actual lunch break, that would mean his 50+ hour work week allows him less than 35 hours for patient contact.
I live in Manitoba, where family doctors see an average of 105 patients per week. That means at least 3 patients per hour, plus charting and other paperwork, writing, renewing, and sending in prescriptions and insurance claims, plus all the other doctor stuff they have to do in a day.
I’m tired just thinking about it
When homeopathic practitioners can set their own hours and rates, limit how many people they see, and give their clients their undivided attention for a set period of time, it stands to reason that patients would feel better listened to and less rushed.
In Canada, the average cost of a visit with a homeopathic practitioner is $250-$400 per hour. I don’t make that much in an entire day of work. When I go to see my GP, it costs me nothing upfront, the visit is covered by my taxes.
The perception of better care does not equal the reality of better care. Feeling cared about is not the same thing as being properly cared for. I’m not saying it isn’t valuable, it absolutely is. Many people feel rushed, dismissed, and not listened to by their primary care physician.
Having someone truly listen to all of your concerns in detail, take the time to listen to all of your symptoms and answer your health-related questions, would certainly feel validating.
That said, all homeopathic practitioners, or their qualifications, are not created equal. There are actual doctors who then go on to become homeopathic practitioners, so they have the same medical training as a family doctor.
There are also homeopathic diploma programs and science degrees. There are online introductory courses that give the participant a certificate at the end. The average consumer may not know the immense difference between these various programs and what level of expertise the training would (or would not) provide.
I can fully appreciate and understand why people are dissatisfied with, and mistrustful of, our current medical system. There is pervasive bias: systemic racism, classism, sexism, and more to contend with.
There is the rampant pathologizing of everything. The tendency to treat surface symptoms and send us on our way, rather than being thorough and finding underlying causes of illness. The unspoken (or sometimes spoken) “hurry up and shut up” attitude.
Our healthcare system has a lot of flaws, but the answer is not turning to the latest “all natural” fads as surefire panaceas.
© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB
When you join medium, as a member you’ll have access to unlimited reads for only $5 per month. If you use my referral link, I’ll earn a small commission.
Dugdale, D. C., Epstein, R., & Pantilat, S. Z. (1999). Time and the patient-physician relationship. Journal of general internal medicine, 14(Suppl 1), S34–S40. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1525-1497.1999.00263.x
Schmacke, N. (2013). What is it about homeopathy that patients value? And what can family medicine learn from this? Quality in Primary Care. https://primarycare.imedpub.com/what-is-it-about-homeopathy-that-patients-value-and-what-can-family-medicine-learn-from-this.php?aid=81
Tai-Seale, M., McGuire, T. G., & Zhang, W. (2007). Time allocation in primary care office visits. Health services research, 42(5), 1871–1894. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6773.2006.00689.x