By: Chris Labos, MD
I’ve been having a bad week. First the CBC put a homeopath on The National to serve as a medical expert along with an Internist and a GP. While the other two members of the panel offered up rational medical advice, he praised vitamins (even though numerous studies have shown that they have no benefit for most people) and said stress was the greatest threat to public health. His two co-panelists offered up much more reasonable alternatives like obesity and the high cost of prescription drugs as impending threats.
If that was not bad enough, then Canada AM had someone talk about how ginger was the new miracle food. Despite the many health claims on this segment, ginger doesn’t have any evidence to support its claim as a medical treatment. A glass of ginger ale will likely ease your upset stomach, but beyond that it is unlikely to find its way into a medical armamentarium.
Then I was listening to the radio and a nutrition “expert” delivered an oration on skin diseases. I learned that eczema was nutritional deficiency caused by inadequate consumption of gamma-linoleic acid. This came as quite as a surprise to me since I had always believed, as most qualified physicians do, that eczema (or atopic dermatitis) is an inflammatory skin disease. Clearly all my medical textbooks and the numerous studies that have shown that severe eczema needs to be treated with immunosuppressive therapies were mistaken, since eating this nutritional supplement will apparently cure anything. Fortuitously, you can purchase vials of gamma-linoleic acid from this expert’s website. The fact that this was a blatant conflict of interest seems to have gone unnoticed. By the way, the homeopath who advocates for vitamins also sells vitamins on his website.
I am not sure why this bothers me so much. I suppose if someone was simply getting on TV and spouting non-sense on an infomercial I would not mind so much. But these “experts” are making the rounds on mainstream media now. This is not a new problem and usually I just tune out the medical mumbo-jumbo. The fact that I caught three such segments on three different media platforms really drove the point home.
I’m not sure how many of these experts actually believe what they say. I suppose a portion of them do. After all, most of their claims are based on a fragment of truth. One study where ginger rhizome extract reduced circulating interleukin-8 levels in human bronchial epithelial cells is interpreted as “eating ginger can treat asthma!!” This is, of course, laughably absurd and a gross misrepresentation of what the study actually said but it can be stated and repeated on any media platform willing to host it with seeming impunity.
Unfortunately, most exerts likely continue to do what they do for financial gain. Conflict of interest is a pernicious threat to public order. Government officials who get kickbacks from construction companies have a conflict of interest, physicians who take money from a pharmaceutical company have a conflict of interest, and an “expert” who advocates a nutritional supplement that they also sell for personal profit has a conflict of interest.
In the medical field, disclosing financial relationships that could compromise objectivity has become the norm and should be done routinely. While there is still some way to go, progress on this particular ethical front has made the process of drug approval at least slightly more transparent. However, many other fields are not burdened by the same restrictions.
Most “experts” touting the healing benefits of this herb, or that plant, or this supplement have a ready set of answers for scientific questions that are usually peppered with enough scientific jargon to dissuade the casual questioner. However, what you can do is ask them where their revenue source comes from. If selling the extract of a South American berry is how they make their money, you might be reluctant to believe their claims about said berry. The situation reminds me of a scene from the first season of, Downtown Abbey. Bates, in looking for a leg brace to fix his limp, asks the shopkeeper if it really works. The shopkeeper contemptuously replies, “As I make it and I advertise it, is it likely I’d say no?” The same applies in the modern era, if you make your money selling South American berries why would you ever say that they don’t work.
Chris Labos, MD
Cardiologist, McGill University