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Medical quackery


Introduction Persons susceptible to quackery

What is medical quackery?

Why does quackery 'work' for some people?
A quack's vocubulary Examples of quack therapies
Spectrum of therapies: from science to quackery Stopping quackery
Problems caused by quackery Web sites devoted to stopping quackery


Medical quackery has been around as long as medicine has existed. It was not until early in the twentieth century that there much difference between the practices of mainstream medicine and quacks. Snake oil salesmen used to sell "cures" from the back of a horse-drawn wagon; today they use the Internet and sophisticated marketing ploys. However, the psychology and operating method of using people's fears and unrealistic expectations to make a buck selling worthless medical treatments or devices has not changed.

Medical quackery can threaten both your health and pocketbook. Learn how to spot it!

What is medical quackery?

Medical quackery exists in various forms and typically involves a medical scheme or remedy that is known to be false or unproven and sold for a profit. It may involve drugs, devices or lifestyle changes.

Some promoters of quackery are sincere and believe in what they are doing; however, they really don't have a clue. Others are manipulators out for a fast profit or personal notioriety. Quacks may hold respected credentials, such as MD or PhD, or they may have bogus degrees from mail-order "diploma mills."

The World Wide Web is making it easier to promote worthless products to an even larger audience. Some reputable medical Web sites have "alternative" medicine categories containing links to questionable health products and services.

A quack's vocubulary

Buzz words: watchout for words used to describe medical treatments such as

  • "secret or secret formula"
  • "proven"
  • "miracle"
  • "foreign"
  • "breakthrough"
  • "works overnight"
  • "guaranteed to work"

    "Conspiracy Theory": Many quacks claim they are fighting against a conspiracy of physicians who are unwilling to acknowledge new treatments. They may claim their products provide a complete cure for a wide variety of problems without any side effects.

Serious conditions often targeted include obesity, depression, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and arthritis. Quacks may also claim to have products that increase lifespan.

Spectrum of therapies: from science based medicine to quackery

Stephen Barrett, M.D., an expert on medical quackery and author of several books and operator of a website on the subject, observes that the current surge of interest in "alternative medicine" by the media and the public has "legitimatized" some quack treatments.

John Renner, M.D., of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) agrees. He says it's becoming more difficult for potential victims to separate science fiction from science. He divides treatments into five groups:

Scientific medicine

Is the established body of conventional, orthodox or mainstream knowledge. It's based on standard methods of prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

New treatments undergo extensive review involving medical schools, research centers, professional organizations and their journals, and regulatory offices of the government.

Investigational medicine

Scientific medicine is not static. It lives in a constant state of refinement. Some of the most respected treatments from as recently as 1970 are outmoded today.

However, many investigational treatments and medications have not worked as hoped either. Treatments are discontinued if they prove to be harmful or not useful.

Unproven treatments

At the fringe of established medicine are many treatments of unknown value. This doesn't mean they have been proven worthless but it doesn't mean they work either.

Home or folk remedies

Some ancient concepts, such as acupuncture and hypnosis, have value in the modern world for certain conditions. They are not cure-alls and should be used only in the context of a program of medical care.

Other home and folk remedies are absolutely worthless.


Some treatments have been proven worthless. Other forms of quackery make inappropriate use of conventional medicine. They may make claims about the treatment that can't be fulfilled.

Various types of massage, for instance, can help you relax. But there is no proof that massage will cure you of disease or prevent illness. Claiming that massage cures disease is considered quackery while claiming it may be helpful for relaxation may be appropriate.

Persons unsure about a treatment should ask a physician, pharmacist, or registered dietitian for advice and seek independent opinions from responsible health organizations or consumer groups. If your doctor or pharmacist is not familar with health claims made by a new product ask again or have them research it. Be cautious of groups calling themselves "consumer groups" crusading for a cause instead of providing objective health information- they may be nothing more than a "front or cover" for a quack promoter.

Problems caused by quackery

Quackery poses genuine threats to health and well being!

Lost time
Some cancers respond well to treatment, especially with early detection. This is true of other problems as well. But if you rely on useless remedies, the time you lose could seriously harm your chance of recovery.

Lost money
The National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) estimates that Americans spend billions on bogus treatments. And often those who purchase quack products are least able to afford them.

Dangerous treatments
Not only does quackery fail to help, it also may cause harm. Quack drugs are not produced under the quality control standards required for prescription and over-the-counter medications. They may contain substances that do not mix safely with one another, with other drugs you take, or with what you eat and drink.

Lost hope
People who realize they have been manipulated by quackery have reason to be bitter. Many become angry toward the medical profession as a whole. This could lead them to shun proper treatment.

Other persons with incurable diseases, such as certain cancers, may turn to quackery after conventional treatment has failed them.Although this may seem harmless and at least worth trying there are several reasons not to including the false hope it may give others who have not yet tried conventional therapies and that it reinforces the predatory practices of the quack. Money spent on quack cures for terminal conditions might be better donated to a worthy casue.

False fear
Some victims of quackery are not even ill. Unscrupulous promoters try to cause doubt or anxiety in these people.

Many quack theories promote an idea that "natural harmony" within your body can fully protect you from disease or provide a cure if you become ill. When disease strikes, patients can feel "shame" at being "responsible" for their illness or failure to recover. Guilt also can affect a patient's loved ones: The parents who take their diabetic child off insulin, the spouse who takes a mate out of the country for worthless therapy.

Persons susceptible to quackery

No one is immune to quackery, regardless of education level. People who purchase fraudulent products often have similar characteristics:

  • They tend to be isolated, lacking the emotional support of families and friends.

  • An illness may lead to a sense of "losing control" over their lives.

  • Persons with chronic or incurable diseases.

  • They may have problems that also can cause emotional distress, such as impotence, baldness, excess weight.

  • May suffer from chronic depression or anxiety or have problems with interpersonal relationships and are unable or unwilling to seek conventional psychologic treatment.

  • They may have a fear of established medicine and government health agencies.

There can be a number of reasons not seeking appropriate professional help including lack of financial resources, fear of being labelled with "an emotional problem", not being aware of treatment options or not being willing to acknowledge an emotional problem exists. Finally, some persons may not be willing to put the time, money and energy into proper treatment and be looking for a quick or "magic" solution. Unfortunately, as any honest magician will tell you, "Magic is just an illusion."

Why does quackery 'work' for some people?

Quackery thrives on vulnerability. We are all vulnerable at certain times in our lives. Anxiety and fear can be so strong that reason gives way to false hope or an unsuspecting person may simply be enticed by catchy advertising and convincing personal testimonials.

The two main reasons why a quack product might seem to "work" are:

A placebo effect — Placebos have no active ingredients. They may work on the power of suggestion. Scientists speculate that a person's confidence in a certain treatment may activate chemical impulses in the brain that diminish symptoms. It is estimated that 10% to 20% of persons are very responsive to placebo treatments.

A self-limiting illness — Diseases vary in their duration and intensity. Arthritis, for instance, can be a life-long problem whose symptoms may improve for periods of time. If you happen to be using a quack treatment when pain subsides, it's natural to think that the "wonder cure" really helps. Colds are another example of a self limiting illness that gets better whether or not a person seeks treatment.

Examples of quackery

Certain practices, such as chelation and touch therapy, are clear examples of quack therapies. Other practices, such as chiropractic, may be useful when its use is restricted to specific circumstances; however, when broader claims are made and nonscientific "tests" or treatments ordered chiropractic can crossover into quackery. Traditional MD's who deceive patients into having unnecessary treatments or surgeries are guilty of unethical practices.

Chiropractic Therapy (certain practices) Hair analysis
Chelation Therapy Homeopathy
Chinese Herbs & Preparations Iridology
Colonic irrigation Touch Therapy
Select above topics to learn more

Any individual, regardless of training, can engage in quackery. However, as a profession main stream medicine is based on aquired knowledge and use of treatments that have either been shown to be effective or those that at least show promise based on objective evidence. Treatments that are proven ineffective or doing more harm than good are discarded. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for chiropractic, homeopathy or any number of other alternative therapies.

Stopping quackery

Useless products are constantly bombarding the market. You can help avoid them with common sense. If you feel you've been "quacked," visit:

Where to report medical quackery


For up-to-date information on medical quackery, visit these Web sites
  • Quackwatch
  • The National Fraud Information Center
  • The American Council on Science and Health
  • The National Council Against Health Fraud
  • The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices

  • Doctors Corner INternet Group, Inc. 1997-2004