Modern-Day Snake Oil

When your patients are taking Gwyneth Paltrow’s medical advice

Unscientific medical advice is everywhere in modern culture. Here’s what physicians can do to combat it.

Unscientific medical advice is everywhere in modern culture, from Gwyneth Paltrow advocating bee stings to treat inflammation to hysteria over gluten causing brain health decay.

According to a 2015 Pew Research study, about one in ten people doubt the safety of vaccines. About half of American adults use supplements, but only 23% of all supplement products were actually taken at the suggestion of a health care provider.

Doctors are challenged to steer their patients away from pseudoscience and unscientific claims and instead encourage patients to follow evidence-based treatments and advice.

Family medicine physicians Jennifer Caudle, DO, and Lt. Col. Natalie Nevins, DO, treat a wide range of patients and often deal with this issue in their practices. They share the following steps doctors can take to address their patients’ erroneous medical beliefs.

  1. Advise the risks and benefits

If patients are reluctant to take Dr. Caudle’s advice, she makes sure to inform them of the consequences of their medical decisions.

“It’s important to make the decision you think is right for you, but I want you to know the potential risks and benefits when it comes to health based on my knowledge as a physician and the best evidence we have out there,” Dr. Caudle says.

While doctors should stay steadfast in their beliefs of good medicine, they should still respect the decisions of their patients.

“I believe a patient who is able and confident to make decisions for themselves should,” Dr. Caudle says.

Jennifer Caudle, DO
  1. Partner up

Working as a team allows for functional discussions instead of defensive debates.

“We are in this together to find the best results for the patient, not to be a dictator and tell them they have to listen to us, no matter what,” Dr. Nevins says.

Immediately dismissing a patient’s concerns as absurd, even if they’re not based in facts, can create stress in the patient-doctor team.

“Creating a defensive relationship breaks down the relationship between the physician and the patient and ultimately may break to the point where the patient doesn’t go to that physician,” Dr. Nevins says.

Lt. Col. Natalie Nevins, DO
  1. Acknowledge the placebo effect

Sometimes the placebo effect is strong enough for patients to believe a product is working.

“The placebo effect is real, and if you believe that this product is helping you, then I’m not in a position to tell you it’s not if you feel better, as long as that product won’t hurt you,” Dr. Nevins says.

If patients truly believe chamomile tea helps them go to sleep faster, then Dr. Nevins supports them.

“I’d much rather have them do that if it helps them sleep than take another pill,” Dr. Nevins says.

  1. Track changes

When patients insist on taking harmless and unnecessary supplements anyway, Dr. Nevins suggests patients keep a diary. By tracking changes, patients can see their results or lack of results.

Patients will often come back to Dr. Nevins with the self-realization that the product they were using had unjustified claims attached to it.

“I didn’t have to shove it in their face and make them feel bad about the decisions they made,” Dr. Nevins says.

  1. Give patients evidence-based resources

Dr. Caudle will recommend factual sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website to patients who want more information about particular topics, and when doing so, she educates them on the importance of understanding where the information they’re reading is coming from.

When patients are considering trying a dubious product, Dr. Nevins advises them to find independent consumer reports that are not paid for by the company. This way she can actually determine what is in the product and if it has any use for the patient.

“When you partner with your patient and do the investigation together, everyone benefits,” Dr. Nevins says.

  1. Educate patients about marketing scams

 Teaching patients about marketing ploys can help them make better decisions about what products and treatments they choose to use.

Dr. Nevins will ask patients questions about how many times a company will ask for money and if the company is making a call for urgency to buy a product before a discount expires.

5 comments

  1. There are board certifications in Integrative medicine that teach the effectiveness on non pharmaceutical approaches to medicine. Natural Standard is an online database that constantly updates research on natural products and will list drug supplement interactions as well as potential adverse reactions. Think of it as Epocrates for supplements. Recommending quality versions of supplements, i.e. Fish oil for its various indications, by becoming familiar with what makes supplements effective and ensuring third party testing for purity and potency is the correct way to respond to patients interest in supplements.

  2. As a physician who has severe gluten reactions, your silly attempt at medical ‘journalism’ is rather alarming.

  3. 1. Ali, M. A. A. M. (2012). Studies on bee venom and its medical uses. International Journal of Advancements in Research & Technology, 1(2), 1-15. Retrieved from http://www.ijoart.org/docs/Studies-on-Bee-Venom-and-Its-Medical-Uses.pdf

    2. Lee, J. A., Son, M. J., Choi, J., Jun, J. H., Kim, J. I., & Lee, M. S. (2014). Bee venom acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis: A systematic review of randomized clinical trials.
    BMJ Open, 4(11). Retrieved from http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/11/e006140.full

    3. Lee, J., Park, H., Chae, Y., & Lim, S. (2005, March). An overview of bee venom acupuncture in the treatment of arthritis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2(1), 79-84. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1062163/

    4. Saad Rached, I. C., Castro, F. M., Guzzo, M. L., & de Mello, S. B. (2010, July 6). Anti-inflammatory effect of bee venom on antigen-induced arthritis in rabbits: Influence of endogenous glucocorticoids. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 130(1), 175-178. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Izabella+Cordeiro+Freire+Saad+Rached

  4. This article is inaccurate and judgemental. It is not a reflection of my belief system as a physician. I’m sorry that I read it. I encourage this organization to retract this ‘article.’ Consider apologizing to Gwyneth Paltrow.

    In the future, I hope to have articles with merit from this organization in my inbox.

  5. Wow this is my profession and we are suppose to be holistic and informed but the educational system in place does not help us do that. As a result we have to educate ourselves to know the truth. Lets be critical after we have researched the matter and had some experience or shared in anthers experience before passing judgement.

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