You may have seen a video that went viral last week before it was taken down, of a group of medical professionals calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and insisting that hydroxychloroquine is a “cure” for the coronavirus despite medical studies to the contrary.
In addition to that claim about the anti-malarial drug, their press conference also pushed such potentially harmful misinformation as the idea that mask-wearing isn’t necessarily a good choice. A day later, Vice President Mike Pence reportedly met with the doctors.
As Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, has said repeatedly, there’s little concrete evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective as a COVID-19 treatment ― even if President Donald Trump continues to promote it.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration warned against using hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients, following reports of “serious heart rhythm problems” and other health issues in those who received the drug.
Still, in part thanks to a retweet by the president, the doctors’ clip went viral. It racked up tens of millions of views, even in the face of a widespread effort by social media companies to remove the video and penalize some who shared it, including presidential son Donald Trump Jr.
What may have been more startling, though, was what the news media found out about Stella Immanuel, the doctor who led the press conference. Immanuel, who works as a primary care physician and pastor in Houston, doesn’t just believe hydroxychloroquine is a valid coronavirus treatment.
She also believes that gynecological issues like endometriosis and cysts are caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches, that alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments and that gay Americans practice “homosexual terrorism.” Online, Immanuel hawks a prayer she claims can remove “generational curses” passed on from ancestors and transmitted through the placenta.
You may wonder: What kind of questionable beliefs might your doctor have that aren’t endorsed by the medical community ― and how can you dodge doctors like Immanuel the next time you’re in the market for a general practitioner or specialist?
Below, Gorski, Kang and other medical experts share how to tell if a doctor might be a quack.
A few signs your doctor may be pushing some dubious beliefs:
They sell their own supplements and treatments.
It’s a significant warning sign if a doctor puts their patients on unconventional mixes of medications and supplements, some of which they sell, Kang said.
“One major red flag is when a physician directly touts their own brand of medicines or supplements to take out of their own store,” she said. “It’s a serious conflict of interest.”
They rely on single-person testimonies, social media or TV endorsements rather than peer-reviewed data.
Many of the doctors we spoke to cited television’s Mehmet Oz and his show “Dr. Oz” as an example of a physician using their platform to hawk questionable treatments. Though Oz has an Ivy League medical degree, a 2014 study in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal found that in 40 randomly selected episodes from Oz’s show, his health recommendations were based on evidence just 46% of the time.
If you’re concerned about your doctor making dubious health recommendations, ask yourself if their claims are supported by scientific evidence. In place of hard evidence, your doctor may claim they have anecdotal evidence that something works ― or that it’s been endorsed by this expert or that celebrity, including TV doctors. That’s not enough.
“Be wary if they mention social media endorsements or they talk about testimonials and single-patient stories,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
Any doctor worth their salt should be citing peer-reviewed articles and scientific studies that rely on well-designed clinical trials, not patient anecdotes and their own personal experience, Caplan said.
They say their treatment is a “miracle cure” with an unbelievably high success rate.
Be leery of a doctor who promises a 100% (or ridiculously high) cure rate. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true, Gorski said. He used the example of certain clinics that claim they have a 90% cure rate for stage IV cancer.
They speak in absolutes.
Does your doctor tend to make sweeping generalizations or speak in absolutes? For example, “All mainstream doctors have it wrong” or “I’m the only one who can help you.” That’s another major red flag, Kang said.
“A good doctor will carefully weigh the pros and cons of any treatment, and are careful about promising anything as a ‘perfect fix,’” she explained.
When the treatment goes wrong, they blame the patient.
Because quack doctors often make overbroad claims about their treatments and products ― “it’s worked for everybody I’ve prescribed it to” ― any instances where the cure-all doesn’t work has to be the patient’s fault.
“They’ll usually blame failure of their treatment on the patient’s failure to adhere to their protocol closely enough,” Gorski said.
This article was first published on Huffpost U.S.