Thursday, February 9, 2017

"There's a sucker born every minute": False and inflated health claims

There is,” in a phrase rightly or wrongly attributed to P.T. Barnum, “a sucker born every minute.” To Barnum, and to countless others before and since, this was a business opportunity. They can get rich off us because we want stuff to be true even when every input from our senses should show us that it isn’t; we want magical, easy cures and money-making schemes, even when we know that they only work for the scheme’s designers, not the suckers who take the bait. Betsy DeVos, the recently approved Secretary of Education, who knows nothing about education and devalues public education (I could go on, but that’s another story…) is the beneficiary of such desires. She is in the position that she is in because of her great wealth which has bought her great influence, and that great wealth, at least the portion from her husband’s side, derives from the Ponzi scheme known as Amway. It is clear that Amway was in fact the path to wealth that it was claimed to be, for the DeVoses anyway.

The persistent and widespread greed of people despite evidence that the odds are stacked way against them is testimony to either optimism or stupidity, or some of both. It is one of the oldest memes in literature, from the alchemists who would turn lead into gold (or Rumpelstiltskin who would weave it) to Faust who would sell his soul to the devil (and maybe so did guitarist Robert Johnson) to Ralph Kramden (and his cartoon successor Fred Flintstone) and George “Kingfish” Stevens, doubly oppressed and vulnerable, being poor and black. And the outcome is always the same, the little guy gets screwed.

We could go on and on with this theme. The temptation to tie it to the election and reign of Donald Trump is enormous; people want something to be true (that they’ll get good jobs back, that their streets will be safe, that they can have all the health care they want and need without paying for it when they don’t need it, whatever) and Trump promised it all, and of course he is not and will not deliver, but many still love him. If you want a good article about this, try Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, The end of facts in the Trump era”. But, after all, this blog is about public health and medicine, and there is no shortage of examples in those fields. After all, con men and grifters, whether low level hucksters, Amway merchants, or Wall Street bankers are all regularly called “snake oil salesmen”, and what was snake oil but a promise of better health? And the liniment sold by these folks might have worked a bit since it had red pepper, a bit like current capsaicin. When they were convicted it was because their oil did not come from snakes, not because it was a fraudulent cure.

You’d think that people would wonder why, if there is a miracle easy (and sometimes even relatively cheap) cure for all their ills that everyone else hasn’t benefited from it. Ah, but that is part of the attraction – being in the know about something everyone else isn’t. Is that not the way that inside traders work? Isn’t that how they fix sporting events, how your brother-in-law knows that this 100-1 shot will come in at Santa Anita? Is that not how Arnold Rothstein got rich? So, sure, it’s done in health. Watch daytime television sometime. It is mostly about medicine, from Dr. Oz (a font of misinformation), to an electric scooter you can get FREE (or at no cost to you, other than as a taxpayer paying into Medicare), or a miracle drug that will allow you to have even better relief from your arthritis or asthma or will keep your blood from clotting even better than warfarin, at only 1000 times the price, and at great potential risk to your immune system.

The hucksters present not only misinformation about individual medical care, but also public health. The most obvious, and likely most serious, current issue is that of vaccines. Despite there being no evidence linking vaccines to autism, and strong evidence showing there is no link, the myth persists. The price will likely be serious outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, especially measles, as discussed by Peter J. Hoetz in his NY Times Op-Ed “How the anti-vaxxers are winning”, February 7, 2017. Water fluoridation suffers from similar myths. Public health may be even more susceptible to such hype than medical care, since so many of its benefits are things (like measles, or tooth decay) that don’t happen, rather than those that do. We rarely wake up saying “Gee, I’m glad I don’t have cholera today because we have clean water”; indeed, we mostly worry about water quality when something specifically bad is happening, like lead poisoning in Flint. People are susceptible to liars and charlatans who tell them things that they want to believe, as well as things that seem to make sense, but as I tell students, something that seems to make sense is called a research question; only when the study is done will we know if it is true.

But it is not only the more obvious (to the discerning, anyway) scams. Mainstream medicine does it often. Every new discovery, every potential ameliorant (if not cure) is trumpeted by both the companies that manufacture it and, at an earlier stage, the university for which they work. Of course, most of these discoveries are scarcely the magic breakthroughs that they are initially claimed to be. That is the nature of science; things are learned and knowledge grows incrementally. But a new discovery by a scientist at your university is worth a lot of publicity! Maybe it is a cure for Alzheimers! Or at least a step in that direction! Certainly worth millions of dollars more in NIH funding! There is nothing wrong in incremental discoveries; the problem is when they are hyped as the Holy Grail. Indeed, on July 16, 2010, I wrote about Rosiglitazone and the "Holy Grail", and how disappointed diabetes advocates were that Avandia® was being taken off the market just because it caused heart disease, because it did lower blood sugar! (A diabetes advocate noted that lowering blood sugar was the “Holy Grail”.) This story is a terrific example of the peskiness caused by the human body being an integral organism; something that is very good for one condition may still cause big problems. And so, maybe we should wait before we hype it too much. On the other hand, what an opportunity we have to get big publicity before that happens…

A recent example involves using low-dose CT screening for lung cancer. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends it (as a “B” recommendation) for men 55-80 years old with a history of smoking. This “B” recommendation is worth a lot to the CT manufacturers and radiologists who read them, since the ACA requires insurers to cover USPSTF “A” and “B” recommendations. But a big Veterans Administration study just published in JAMA shows that it is not quite as good as previously thought. “Of the 2106 patients screened, 1257 (59.7%) had nodules; 1184 of these patients (56.2%) required tracking, 42 (2.0%) required further evaluation but the findings were not cancer, and 31 (1.5%) had lung cancer.” Does this mean that it is a bad idea to get screened? Not necessarily; if I had a patient with a significant smoking history, I would discuss the risks inherent in getting this procedure but prepare them for the probability that even a positive test would likely not mean they had cancer, and that they might have to undergo more procedures with some risk to find out. The point is not that this is a bad idea, but it is not some amazing breakthrough, as touted.

Just because you want to get rich quick, or avoid needle sticks, or find the magic cure for your arthritis or cancer that has been denied you, and someone is selling something that claims to do it, doesn’t make it true. If you think so, I’ve got a couple of bridges to sell you.

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