COLUMNISTS

Prairie Doc Perspective: If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is

Debra Johnston, M.D.
The Prairie Doc
Debra Johnston, M.D.

At my house, classic TV is a given. My 93-year-old father-in-law enjoys watching reruns of westerns, Perry Mason, Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle. With these old favorites come commercials targeting an aging population: Medicare Advantage plans, reverse mortgages and “miracle solutions” for neuropathy - with free consultations for the first 250 people who call!

Every time we see one of these neuropathy advertisements, my father-in-law looks at me hopefully.

His neuropathic foot pain has been intractable for decades. All the usual medical solutions have either brought minimal relief, or intolerable side effects. It interferes with his sleep, and the shuffling of his feet in response to the pain literally wore holes in the dining room linoleum.

Any situation without a clear solution leaves an opportunity for the unscrupulous to pounce. As I watch those TV ads, I wonder how many people send in their money or otherwise fall victim to medical quackery.

Years ago, I accompanied a friend to a hair loss “consultation”. He was awed by the trappings: white coat, scientific sounding terms, glossy pamphlets with patient testimonials. I was less impressed. What was in their product? They couldn’t tell me, it was secret. Where were their studies? They pointed to those patient testimonials. Did they have any published data? That wasn’t available yet. I was struck by the scientific babble, too. It sounded impressive, but it didn’t make any sense to me.

Today similar organizations offer invitation-only dinners at local establishments, followed by the opportunity to sign up for treatment that may cost you out of pocket because insurance won’t cover it. They have professional looking websites with quotes, supposedly from delighted customers, and perhaps a few references to publications doctors might call “throw away” journals, or to decades-old articles, or research that doesn’t actually involve the treatment at hand. There might be claims that the treatment is ancient, or brand new, or that “they” (usually doctors, the government, or Big Pharma) don’t want you to know about it.

Legitimate medical treatments are not kept secret. They are presented to other professionals, for critique, evaluation, and replication. Researchers try to determine if a treatment might be effective only in certain situations, or more broadly. If it is promising, it becomes widely available, and insurance coverage often follows.

Sadly, neuropathy, like many chronic pain conditions, has a variety of causes and a variety of often less-than-satisfactory treatments. It is an easy target for “snake oil” salesmen. As always, talk to your doctor before you try something that sounds too good to be true.

Debra Johnston, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. Follow The Prairie Doc® at www.prairiedoc.org and on Facebook.