In the opening of his book, The New Alchemists, author and UBC professor Bernie Garrett compares the rise of deceptive heath care practices and misinformation to the cons perpetrated by Renaissance alchemists, who swindled desperate people with promises of immortality and claims they could turn metal into gold.
“Everybody wants to be healthy,” said Garrett. “Everybody has been taken in by some sort of health scam at one point in their life — a product to improve their skin, or lose weight. It’s a normal human desire to try and improve our lives.”
But when lives are at stake — or when a global pandemic hits — the outcomes of believing in pseudo-science, deception, scams and misinformation, can be more serious.
“It’s not just a question about losing money, some of these things can be detrimental and prevent people from getting effective treatment,” said Garrett, who cites several well-known cases that have had tragic outcomes, such as the death of a toddler in Alberta whose parents used natural remedies, rather than seek medical treatment for their seriously ill child.
Garret started writing the book in 2018 after noticing an increase in deceptive health care practices fuelled by the internet. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, with its plethora of misinformation and fraudulent tests, cures, immune-boosting agents, anti-vaccination rhetoric, and fake cures, from bleach to sunlight.
Watching the explosion of misinformation play out in real time as he wrote the book was fascinating, said Garrett, who compared it to bailing out a leaky boat: for every theory that was debunked, a new one would replace it.
“For my colleagues working in the ICUs and acute care units across the country, the effects of this pandemic are horrific, and any misinformation that prolongs it has serious consequences,” said Garrett, who has 35 years of experience in nursing and health care research.
Bogus health care claims come in many guises, whether it’s a “magical health machine” or magical technology, unproven supplements, super-juices, fake products, fake clinics, or even fake doctors like teen Malachi A. Love-Robinson, who was caught fraudulently practicing in Florida.
“The most egregious are the fake cancer clinics in the way in which they prey on very vulnerable people,” said Garrett.
Mistrust of conventional medicine has led to distrust of some public health options, said Garret, in part, because of scandals associated with big pharma.
“We’ve had scandals with Abilify, OxyContin,Respiridal and others, where these pharmaceutical companies have behaved very poorly in terms of marketing, and that’s encouraged some people to move away from traditional medicine. ”
Deceptive healthcare providers have capitalized on that growing lack of public trust in science and medicine, and social media has fuelled the fire. Studies show that even “absurd” rumours and easily understood falsehoods spread faster on social media networks than solid science, said Garrett who cites Kaiser Family Foundation research that shows 2/3 of unvaccinated adults believed at least one vaccine lie.
The psychology of advertising plays a role said Garrett.
“These folks are very good at pushing our buttons with buzzwords that appeal to us or invoke fear.”
Deceptive health care claimants tend to appeal to emotion rather than logic, and rely on techniques that connect positive social imagery and phrases such as “Moms like this,” or use images of nature, or “ancient traditions.”
They tend to rely on testimonials, and claims of groundbreaking or secret research science hasn’t caught up with yet, or the conspiracy theorists favourite: “doctors don’t want you to know this,” said Garrett.
“It’s a complex problem,” said Garrett. “With people in our own lives it’s important to debunk these idea when they come forward by
pointing out why things are illogical or irrational and correcting misconceptions.”
Garret said the “wild west” of health care advertising needs to be better regulated, and our health care systems need to be made more user-friendly so fewer people will seek alternatives.
“Some of the key problems we have in health deception in Canada and more broadly are based on this lack of regulation.”