Monday, November 19, 2007

When Quacks Attack

How one man's invention is part of a growing worldwide scam that snares the desperately ill (Seattle Times)

A Seattle Times investigation has uncovered a global network of manufacturers who sell unproven devices, and practitioners who prey on unsuspecting patients.

Capitalizing on weak government oversight, they have used these devices — some illegal, others potentially dangerous — to drain patients' bank accounts, misdiagnose diseases, and divert critically ill people from life-saving care.

These victims are casualties in the growing field called "energy medicine" — alternative therapies based on the belief that the body has energy fields that can be manipulated to improve health. Energy devices range from handheld machines the size of television remotes to behemoth machines that weigh hundreds of pounds, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $55,000.

Unfortunately, many people turn to these and other treatments, loosely termed "alternative therapies" (to include herbal supplements and holistic remedies) and the price they pay can range from thousands of dollars to their lives, whether as a direct result of the treatment or because they neglected to see real medical care for a serious condition. The reasons people turn to these practices range from a distrust of establishments like the medical community to bad experiences with previous medical treatments to a distorted perception of financial costs and expected gains.

I will be the first to admit that I do take vitamin C supplements and indulge in yoga and Shiatsu for my health because I feel that the potential gains outweigh the risks (both of which I have researched to a good extent). But I draw the line for myself and friends at expensive price tags or risky procedures; while there may be some benefit to be had, further research needs to be performed before alternative therapies are introduced freely to the public, who has a reasonable expectation of safety and efficacy.

There are many angles to a story like this – new medical technologies, public misinformation, cultural and social tendencies to believe in quack treatments – and there is no easy answer, especially when a vehement denial of the efficacy of alternative therapies by medical professionals could only exacerbate the existing atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that feeds this problem in the first place. While rational engagement by professionals and skeptics is important, a sincere and sensitive discussion on a cultural level will yield more progress in this issue.

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