The NIH Office of Alternative Medicine recommends the following before getting involved in any alternative therapy:
- Obtain objective information about the therapy. Besides talking with the person promoting the approach, speak with people who have gone through the treatment–preferably both those who were treated recently and those treated in the past. Ask about the advantages and disadvantages, risks, side effects, costs, results, and over what time span results can be expected.
- Inquire about the training and expertise of the person administering the treatment (for example, certification).
- Consider the costs. Alternative treatments may not be reimbursable by health insurance.
- Discuss all treatments with your primary care provider, who needs this information in order to have a complete picture of your treatment plan.
For everyone–consumers, physicians and other health-care providers, and government regulators–FDA has the same advice when it comes to weeding out the hopeless from the hopeful: Be open-minded, but don’t fall into the abyss of accepting anything at all. For there are–as there have been for centuries–countless products that are nothing more than fraud. n
Tip-Offs to Rip-Offs
New health frauds pop up all the time, but the promoters usually fall back on the same old cliche’s and tricks to gain your trust and get your money. According to FDA, some red flags to watch out for include:
- claims the product works by a secret formula. (Legitimate scientists share their knowledge so their peers can review their data.)
- publicity only in the back pages of magazines, over the phone, by direct mail, in newspaper ads in the format of news stories, or 30-minute commercials in talk show format. (Results of studies on bona fide treatments are generally reported first in medical journals.)
- claims the product is an amazing or miraculous breakthrough. (Real medical breakthroughs are few and far between, and when they happen, they’re not touted as “amazing” or “miraculous” by any responsible scientist or journalist.)
- promises of easy weight loss. (For most people, the only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.)
- promises of a quick, painless, guaranteed cure
- testimonials from satisfied customers. (These people may never have had the disease the product is supposed to cure, may be paid representatives, or may simply not exist. Often they’re identified only by initials or first names.)
Whether looking for an alternative therapy or checking the legitimacy of something you’ve heard about, some of the best sources are advocacy groups, including local patient support groups.
Those groups include:
American Cancer Society
1599 Clifton Road, N.E.
Atlanta, GA 30329
(404) 320-333, (1-800) ACS-2345
P.O. Box 19000
Atlanta, GA 30326
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
733 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017-3288
(212) 986-3240, (1-800) 344-4867
HIV/AIDS Treatment Information Service
P.O. Box 6303
Rockville, MD 20849-6303.
(1-800) 448-0440, TDD/Deaf Access: (1-800) 243-7012
Federal government resources on health fraud and alternative medicine are:
Rockville, MD 20857
Office of Alternative Medicine/NIH
6120 Executive Blvd., EPS
Rockville, MD 20852
U.S. Postal Inspection Service
(monitors products purchased by mail)
Office of Criminal Investigation
Washington, DC 20260-2166
Federal Trade Commission
(regarding false advertising)
6th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20580
Other agencies that may have information and offer assistance include local Better Business Bureaus, state and municipal consumer affairs offices, and state attorneys general offices.