Some time ago, a friend of mine related an incident of quackery to me. An as allopath, I do know the limitations of my school of medicine and do not necessarily stop people from going for other types of medicine as long as they get relief.
But this story changed my attitude. A terminally ill cancer patient's husband was told about her bad prognosis, and the almost nil chance of cure. This is when a so-called "doctor" on television, who professed to have an exotic cure for many illnesses promoted actively by the TV channel, was approached by the family. He gave a hundred per cent guarantee for cure and said he would give five courses of medicine (unnamed, but procured from musk deer with great difficulty) which would cost Rs. 3 lakh per course. The gullible husband paid up. After five courses and all the money gone, the patient died. The quack was arrested later when a poor village woman cheated by him went to the police.
Attractive cure offers
We do see several such advertisements in the media with medicines which are supposed to improve memory, correct sexual dysfunction, cure diabetes once and for all and revitalise the heart. I am amazed by the number of educated, so-called professionals who are willing to believe in these miracle medicines. The treatments range from unnamed medicines of all combinations, strange powders (some contain steroids which can give a sense of well-being), to metal bracelets with coloured stones which are worn on the wrist to bring down blood pressure. The other surprise is many of these treatments are expensive. However people are willing to pay thousands of rupees for these unproven therapies as was in the case reported above.
The fault is partly ours. Patients generally are put off by us doctors who order tests, have less time to explain and generally may not be willing to listen to many complaints once we are fairly sure nothing much is wrong with the patient. The biggest fault with us is we refuse to play god. We may not promise 100 per cent cures and, sometimes, accept that we don't know and may not give convincing explanations. This honesty is mistaken for lack of concern, and patients run to alternative therapies which promise complete cure. Those with simple ailments do get better with comforting words. Those with serious illnesses do not. Many diabetics stop all their medicines and try sitting in pyramidal tents with magical effects and go on to exotic diets for a permanent cure. We have seen quite a number of them come back with very high sugar and even irreversible complications.
First, it would be good to ban advertising of unproven therapies to unsuspecting public. Patients too would be wiser if they accept that some diseases do not have a cure yet, and some like diabetes and blood pressure need lifelong therapy, and have no instant cures.
The refusal to even check if such therapies work, like monitoring blood sugars or blood pressure, is the main reason for the thriving of quakery. Trust does not mean the mortgaging of common sense, and it would be better to doubt treatments not backed by evidence, and disbelieve anecdotal accounts of magical cure.
(The writer is Professor of Medicine, Kasturba Medical College, Manipal)