Saturday, July 24, 2010

Part I: If it Sounds to Good to be True: Scams, Frauds and Quacks

People with chronic and/or life-threatening conditions are at high risk for scams and fraud. Because these conditions have no “cure,” and can cause pain, ongoing extensive and expensive treatments, and/or considerably anxiety, quack cures and treatments abound.

If you attend a support group, on-line or in-person, you will hear people describe a variety of things they are trying either prescribed by their provider or something they read about. There are many different approaches to treatment. Support groups are good places to discuss what’s worked and what hasn’t. However, they also lend themselves, particularly on-line groups, to practices that may turn out to be less than healthful.

Once distrusted, and viewed as quackery, practices such as meditation, relaxation, yoga, Qigong, mindfulness training, and acupuncture are now part of many hospitals, cancer centers and clinics. Called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), a number of hospital website’s include these options when discussing treatment and prevention. The Mayo Clinic’s Diseases and Conditions website is one such example. There is also a division of the National Institutes of Health for CAM, which is funding research into a number of different alternative treatments. The NIH site includes a number of fact sheets and information on various treatments.

Tomorrow’s post will focus on health insurance scams. This post is focusing on medical scams and frauds that are developed to prey on people that are vulnerable. The developer of such treatments is your basic “snake oil” salesman.

There are major problems with such treatments:
• it can be harmful to your health;
• it’s expensive and insurance wont cover it;
• it could delay, or interfere with treatments that work; and/or
• while you are experimenting with an un tested treatment, your disease could be progressing.

Warning signs of a scam:
• The product promises a cure for a disease, such as AIDS, where there is no cure.
• The product is a quick cure for a wide range of ailments. Most products are effective in certain areas.
• The evidence given for its success is testimonials only. Look for research to back up claims.
• There are a number of products that claim “based on scientific study,” but the “study” will turn out to be designed by the manufacturer and will never appear in a peer reviewed medical journal.
• The term natural is often used to suggest that a product is safer than conventional medicine. Because many of these products are not under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you have no way of knowing what’s in the product or how much.
• Avoid products where the following key words are used in advertising miraculous cure, amazing breakthrough, foolproof, suppressed treatments, secret ingredients, time-tested or new-found.
• Treatment is only available privately, for a short time or from only one source. Be even more skeptical if it requires payment in advance.
• The product is an experimental treatment only available if you pay to be part of study. Genuine clinical trials provide the treatment free of charge.
• An “infomercial,” newspaper, magazine or website promotion
• Satisfaction Guaranteed. Marketers of fraudulent products rarely stay in the same place for long. Many people never get their money back.
• Lots of medical jargon. Terms and scientific explanations may sound impressive and may have an element of truth to them, but the public "has no way of discerning fact from fiction," says the FDA. Fanciful terms can cover up a lack of scientific proof.
• “The drug companies and medical providers don’t want you to know about this product because it would undercut their profits.” While drug companies may be profit driven, medical providers are in the business to heal and treat.

Ask questions, such as:
• Written information about the product
• The contact information about the manufacturer. Check them out.
• Was the treatment approved by the FDA. If not, why not?
• Where’s the research? How old is the research and who sponsored it?
• What are the side effects and risks?
• Where can your health provider call for more information?

Talk to:
• Your medical provider about what you want to try.
• Condition specific organizations-e.g. American Heart Association.
• Family members and friends.
• Better Business Bureau or local attorneys generals’ office to see whether other consumers have lodged complaints about the product.
• The FDA office closest to you. fed_state/dfsr_activities/dfsr_pas.html

The ultimate question to ask yourself is “Does it sound to good to be true?” If it does, it probably isn’t true.

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