Did you know in many countries doctors are still referred to as ‘quacks’ and no it has nothing to do with ducks. ‘Quack’ is also being used to describe natural healers, but is it justified? Let’s try to understand, what is a quack doctor?
Since the dawn of mankind, people have always looked for ways to overcome sickness and pain and there has been no shortage of ‘wise’ men and women to offer advice and treatment. Witch doctors, shaman, bomoh, and of course quack doctor are just a few of the terms to describe these practitioners; some are reputable, some are competent, but there are many that are just charlatans and fraudsters taking advantage of people’s need to be cured.
This is particularly evident in the third world or developing nations where tradition plays a large part in society, especially in the rural areas where there is still a strong belief in the unseen. In these countries, there are still many people that seek advice and treatment from their local ‘medicine man’ rather than go to a conventional clinic.
It was only a few centuries ago that the West had similar beliefs. I’m sure you’ve all seen the Western movies with the ‘snake oil’ salesmen rolling into town promising that his tonic could cure all ailments. Even in Europe, around the 16th-17th Century, it used to be believed that a touch from a royal hand could provide a cure.
Suspicions of the local herbalist would often result in a witch hunt and barbaric torture to determine if she was really a witch, either way she would usually end up dying.
Where Did The Term Come From?
Well first of all, it has nothing to do with ducks. There is an old Dutch word ‘quacksalver’ which was apparently used in the 17th century to describe people selling medicines and tonics. The so-called healing potions were often fake, nothing more than colored water, and so the word became synonymous with someone being crooked or a cheater.
Many of the ‘quacks’ were weeded out in the mid-18th century when the UK created a Medical Register but the term stuck and sometimes doctors are still referred to as ‘quacks’.
The term is still used today to describe those promoting natural therapies and natural treatments. These people are considered as on the fringe of medicine and are accused of promoting pseudo-science.
That’s not to say that all such practitioners are cheats, there are many that have knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation and we see today that there are natural and herbal therapies that do have considerable success. There is a lot of research being done to understand the mechanisms of cancer and the interaction with natural substances such as herbs, plant extracts and so on.
The key difference between conventional doctors and natural therapists is that doctors have been to medical school, they have studied the components of the human body, and how it all works. Natural therapists have possibly not had any formal training and those that have attended a relevant school or university are usually not recognised by the medical profession.
Admittedly there are enough bogus practitioners out there to give natural treatments a bad name, but with the amount of research available on the internet it is relatively easy to determine if a home remedy or a purported natural method has some scientific basis.
How To Spot Quackery
Wikipedia defines a quack as a “fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill” or “a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, qualification or credentials he or she does not possess“; it goes on to define quackery as “the promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices“.
Unfortunately ‘quacks’ do not wear the headgear that they used to wear centuries ago so may be more difficult to identify. But there are warning signs to look out for when dealing with a ‘quack’. They invariably exagerate the medical conspiracy theory that ‘Big Pharma’ is hindering the research and promotion of natural therapies; there may be some truth and there will always be some top executive whose only focus is the ‘bottom line’, but not all conventional doctors are in league with the corporations.
A ‘quack’ often takes an extreme position against conventional medicine and refuses to acknowledge that in some cases the natural therapies are not the most effective way to go. If a treatment is not working then they should accept that, not try to defend it or quickly offer another alternative. If the naturopath is unable to accept criticism or challenges to the efficacy of his methods, then he is probably a ‘quack’. Skepticism is a good thing and a thorough review of all available information is necessary.
Dr. Stephen Barret provides a balanced review of ‘quackery‘ and recognises that it should not be a term that automatically applies to methods that are labeled ‘natural’ or ‘alternative’ and clarifies that
“Quackery entails the use of methods that are not scientifically accepted“.
However, Dr. David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS, a surgical oncologist takes a very strong stand against ‘naturopathy’ and makes a statement
“There are no good naturopaths”
He has a very dim view of naturopathy education and licensed practitioners and dedicates a whole article using the unfortunate death of young woman in March 2017 to malign the naturopath that treated her and the naturopathy educational institutes. This is like declaring that all medical education and all doctors are bad because of one instance of malpractice.
Clearly, opinions are divided, but the real crux of the matter when it comes to natural therapies is that bogus practitioners often use deception to convince others that the natural treatments they’re offering are the ‘next big thing‘ in terms of a cure. We see this with many MLM companies who have convinced their members of the benefits of certain health products, not all of which have any form of scientific basis. The use of misleading advertising regarding dietary supplements, use of herbs, and other homeopathic products, herbs, and some nonprescription drugs are just deception by the manufacturers and the advertising agencies. The victims are the distributors, the pharmacists, and ultimately the patients.
If anybody is considering natural treatments they should always check that the substances or methods they are planning to use are supported with scientific evidence; if there is no basis for the claims of certain treatments, then it should be avoided.
As an example, I recently came across a number of videos that claim swinging arm exercises can cure Stage 3 cancer, absolutely no scientific explanation and this video is being shared around cancer related Facebook pages here in Malaysia and probably elsewhere, go figure.
One thing that should definitely be avoided is questionable diagnoses by unqualified personnel; I strongly recommend that for any illness, the best person to consult in the first instance is your doctor, at least this will provide a qualified diagnosis and enable to you to look at the various options for treatment.
The National Cancer Institute is purported to have made a statement with regard to unconventional methods and recommends that those considering alternative therapies should ask themselves a number of questions:
- Has the treatment been evaluated in clinical trials? Look for a particular treatment that has been reported in reputable scientific journals
- Do the practitioners of an approach claim that the medical community is trying to keep their cure from the public? It is unlikely that anyone would knowingly keep an effective treatment a secret or try to suppress such a treatment
- Does the treatment rely on nutritional or diet therapy as its main focus? There is research that supports the use of diet and nutrition to help combat cancer, but no clinical evidence that diet alone can get rid of cancerous cells in the body
- Do those who endorse the treatment claim that it is harmless and painless and that it produces no unpleasant side effects? This is not always true, the only clear difference is that natural therapies tend to do less harm to the body than conventional treatments.
- Does the treatment have a “secret formula” that only a small group of practitioners can use? Any serious treatment will normally have some form of research to support it and this is published in reputable journals so they can be evaluated by other scientists and members of the medical profession.
What’s The Harm in Trying?
There is an assumption that if it’s natural it must be good for you, but this is not always the case. I mentioned above about the death of a young lady; her naturopath had taken turmeric (which does have therapeutic benefits when taken orally) and had administered it intravenously, however there is no scientific evidence that this method is an acceptable application of the spice.
In 1997, Professor William T. Jarvis, Ph.D. wrote quite a negative article about the harm that can be done by ‘quackery’ particularly in the case of cancer. But if we consider his thoughts as targeting the bogus naturopaths, then in many ways, he is absolutely correct. The key point that I got from his article is that
“Patients should be warned that when they patronize cancer quackery they face economic exploitation, risk injury or death, place themselves beyond reach of consumer protection laws, and help sustain quack operations that will exploit other cancer sufferers in the future“.
He categorizes the harm in a number of ways and I’ve summarized his opinions below, but bear in mind that this was 20 years ago and new research is to some extent nullifying some of his opinions. Nevertheless, they are valid points to consider for anyone thinking of taking the alternative approach:
Economic Harm – The financial impact upon individuals and families can be catastrophic if they fall into the trap of pursuing their quest for a remedy in hopeless cases.
Direct Harm – Dubious therapies can cause death, serious injury, unnecessary suffering, and disfigurement.
Indirect Harm – Over-reliance upon dietary treatment can indirectly harm cancer sufferers. While nutrient deficiencies and dietary excesses can cause or aggravate diseases, the vast majority of diseases do not have a nutritional cause. (Recent research begs to differ on this point).
Psychological Harm – If the natural methods fail for any reason, the patients may suffer unjustified guilt, stress, fear, anger, distrust, and depression.
Loss of Valuable Time – By offering false hope, quackery steals the most precious thing terminal cancer patients have; the best use of what little time that they have left. The use of unconventional methods may delay the opportunity to receive potentially effective therapy and may reduce a patient’s chances for cure or control of cancer.
Distortion of Perspective – An inability to determine what is good or what is bad, to blindly follow or accept the information being given to them by the naturopath.
Conventional or Natural, That Is The Question
There is a need to hold practicing naturopaths to the same high standards of conventional medicine. This may require further legislation, more thorough training, or more stringent licensing protocols.
Bogus therapists need to be weeded out and doctors should be open-minded enough and have sufficient information to be able to listen to the concerns of their patients. Doctors should try to empathize with the emotional turmoil that their patient is going through. If necessary, listen and discuss the pros and cons of both alternative and conventional therapies, assist the patient to come to a decision that is right for them.
At the end of the day it is a very personal choice and judgments about individual methods should be based on whether there is scientific evidence to support the safety, quality, and effectiveness of the treatment.
I cannot emphasize enough that when considering alternative choices, you should always consult your doctor regarding the pros and cons of both options. Do not fall prey to charlatans who are out to make a profit from your misfortune.
If you’re interested to know more about the fascinating and morbid history of quackery and medicine, you may want to take a look at these books. Click on the image to see more.