Tuesday, November 21

The Topic? Fake Health News, of Course.

FoolProofme.com features regular guest columns by the top consumer advocates in the USA. You may notice that these experts aren't shy when it comes to giving their opinion. We like that.

Dr. Ivan Oransky is a Distinguished Writer in Residence, New York University's Arthur Carter Journalism Institute. He is Co-Founder, Retraction Watch, Editor at Large, MedPage Today, and Vice President, Association of Health Care Journalist. Dr. Oransky is also Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, New York University School of Medicine.

Dr. Ivan Oransky has been doing his best to ferret out fake and questionable medical claims, and the stories behind them, for more than a decade. More on his pedigree later.

Ivan just joined FoolProof's Walter Cronkite Committee, and we decided to ask him a few questions.

The topic? Fake Health News, of course.

What are your thoughts on all the advertisements for medications?

It's worth noting that the U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer ads for medications. Even the American Medical Association has come out against it.

So what's wrong with direct-to-consumer ads?

Often, those ads are what we refer to as "disease mongering." It's really selling a disease, and helps build an overmedicated culture. Every ache and pain gets turned into a disease. Before you know it, you think there's a pill for everything.

I worry as much about those who are undertreated. A lot of people really do need to know that their blood pressure is high, for instance. But a lot of what you see on TV is for what I could consider lifestyle drugs that companies want to turn into blockbusters.

How much is the pushing of medication impacting children?

Look, first time parents in particular are nearly driven into a frenzy by everything they read. We have this culture that you have to buy exactly the right stroller and do everything this way and that way, and that can be driven by fake news. Actually, the advertising dollars themselves drive the media coverage—both real coverage and fake coverage—when it comes to children's products in general.

How do the advertising dollars drive the media coverage?

There are so many advertising dollars available for selling to children and their parents. That demand literally creates magazines and websites to provide an outlet for that advertising, just to sell that stuff.

Kaiser Health News has just run an interesting article on this potential problem: "Prescription Drug Costs Are On The Rise; So Are The TV Ads Promoting Them."

Do advertising or marketing dollars impact how doctors deal with their patients?

If you're wondering if your doctor charges you too much for medicine, do this: see if the drugs you are taking are generic. If they are, it's unlikely your doctor is being visited often by drug company sales reps.

I would encourage you to go to this website to see if your doctors are getting a lot of money from different manufacturers. You can enter your doctor's name and instantly see how much he or she has been paid by manufacturers...

What really drives overtreatment is our fee-for-service health care system. Human nature says some doctors are going to order more tests and perform more procedures if they're paid by how many they do.

If your doctor recommends an over-the-counter product for you kid, does it matter which brand you get?

It matters, and you should choose the product, not your kid. Most kids don't need vitamins, for instance. But if your child does need one, you can buy vitamins that taste like gummy bears—loaded with sugar—or you can pick one with no sugar. Marketers manipulate children, when it comes to virtually everything, and everybody's got to look out for that.

Okay, I'm surfing the web and see an amazing story about a health product or exciting cure. How do I know if that product or cure is fake or real?

First, have you ever heard of the source? Anybody can create an impressive-sounding website that is total fiction. Fly-by-night medical sites pop up every day and some disappear as fast. Mainstream sources that you know don't get things right all the time, but at least they have something riding on a story, their reputation.

Second, see if the site offers any links to evidence. If they don't link to a source, I would be very skeptical. If they do link to a source, click on the link and have a look. If a study includes details such as cell lines and test tubes, or testing on mice and other animals, that's probably a pretty serious research paper—but it's likely meaningless for humans.

Third, look at the advertisements on the site. If the ads seem to be only promoting products and cures written about in the story, I would stay very far away.

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