The internet’s rife with adverts and claims for clinics and treatments that offer ‘cures’. But if you’re tempted by untested claims you might want to think again, argues Tabitha from Sense About Science.
A new Sense About Science guide, written with patients and medical charities, explores the danger of untested cures on the web.
People facing long-term or chronic conditions can be desperately searching for anything that might help, and are especially vulnerable to exploitation.
Bombarded with unsubstantiated claims for ‘pioneering cancer treatments’, new diets and unfounded stem cell cures, patients can be left chasing false hope, exposed to crippling financial and emotional costs and risking serious harm to their health.
These treatment claims offer hope of finding something that will do more than conventional medicines can. But the evidence for many of them is unreliable.
Harm to your health and wallet
It’s easy to see a treatment or cure and think ‘I’ve got nothing to lose…’ but the reality is that people can risk, and lose, a lot.
Patients have told us about harm to their health – aggravation of their condition, pressure to stop taking medication, being exposed to risk of infections such as HIV via treatment with unscreened stem cells. And patients have also told us about the financial costs – parting with life savings, risking loss of homes or jobs.
There’s also the emotional toll: pressure from well-meaning friends and family to try things despite a lack of evidence to support them and, perhaps worst of all, the disappointment of realising you’ve been sold false hope.
Aggressive advertising for ‘cures’
Many clinics use aggressive marketing, by selecting the best testimonials, using pseudo-science, even posing as patients in online forums. Some of these treatments cost tens of thousands of pounds. This runs into the hundreds of thousands if they involve costly trips to private clinics abroad – sometimes leading to high-profile emotional public appeals from family and friends to raise money for treatment costs.
In response, we’ve been working with patients and medical charities at Sense About Science to publish a guide to help people weigh up claims about unfounded cures on the web and in advertising. Christine, who has a thyroid condition, told us:
‘After a saliva test an “alternative thyroid doctor” gave me “adrenal glandular” tablets and told me to reduce my prescribed thyroid medication. I was in a lot of pain, bed-bound for weeks and it cost me a whole year out of my life – not to mention the huge costs of paid carers and useless and misleading saliva tests. My advice is not to make my terrible mistake of trusting anyone outside the medical profession.’
Cut through the hype
The clear message coming from patients is that if a claim about a treatment sounds too good to be true, it probably is – but also that there’s a lot that you can do, including:
- Get involved in clinical trials.
- Find good evidence-based information.
- Ask questions about evidence to help tell the beneficial from the bogus.
We live in a world where it’s possible for people to trade in this area. The web provides an amazing advertising space – one which despite best efforts, defies jurisdiction. From our point of view, the best thing we can do is equip people against this: armed with evidence and some critical questions, anyone can put themselves in a stronger position to cut through the hype around unproven treatments for themselves.
What do you think about ‘miracle cure’ promises made online? Do you know of anyone who’s been affected by this?
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Tabitha Innocent, Scientific Liaison at Sense About Science. All opinions expressed here are Tabitha’s own, not necessarily those of Which?