What is a Quack Doctor

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.


20 thoughts on “What is a Quack Doctor”

  1. Abdusalam – I could not agree more with what you wrote in the article. First of all, we are living in East Africa at the moment and I cannot tell you how many stories / advertisements / referals of witch doctors, herbal practicioners I heard and saw in the last two years down here. And more worrying, how many people really take that serious and just think, whether there is a business problem, a love problem, a health problem or a money problem, I go to the next practicioner, get adivce, probably burn a chicken or some herbs and all will be well.
    I grew up in Germany and we still use the term “Quacksalber” which is basically the quacks you are refering to very often when it comes to not proven methods. And even in a developed country like Germany are lots of naturopaths methods I would put in the same category. And I think the developed world has still as much of them as the to be developed countries, it is just less obvious and with less mystic things around it. I also agree with your thought that more legislation and licensing might help a huge step towards sorting out the quacks.
    Despite all this, I am convinced and have experienced myself, that there are some very valuable naturopath methods which are worth to consider when a certain illness is diagnosed. I have a chronic disease and I try to take the best from both sides, some of the conventional stuff is needed for my survival and some of the natural stuff is helping along very well. But I would be very careful with natural stuff where there is not a single piece of scientific evidence.
    Keep up the great work…!! And thanks for the tip on the book “Quackery”, had a brief look into it online and it sounds like a great read to me…

    1. Hi Katrin,

      Thank you for your input. Your experience in East Africa is not surprising at all, but I am very surprised that it is still happening in Germany. The important thing is to ensure there is scientific evidence to support any claims for natural therapies.

      It’s also important to ask questions and be critical. Whether you’re consulting with a doctor or a naturopath, don’t blindly follow their advice; in both cases neither of them can know everything and it’s wise to thoroughly understand the risks and complications associated with any form of treatment.

      You mention that you’re using both conventional and natural methods, I hope you’re taking care that neither of them are having a negative affect on the other, this can sometimes happen.

      I wish you a speedy recovery and a return to good health. 

      I’m glad you liked the book 🙂

      All the best,


  2. Hi there,

    I enjoyed reading your article and can relate to it so well. I live in a large community where there are only 2 young doctors, and that only recently. We have to go to the city in order to receive medical help. When I go back to the history of my community, you will find many of the quacksalver people. Nevertheless, I sometimes stand amazed at what some of these lay doctors and lay nurse know. They have so much idea about your body and can do things with different spices, plants, etc. But, you are so right, there are so many of them that have no idea and pretend they would know how to help you.

    Back in my childhood, when my parents did not have other ideas still, they would take us to these people and have us “cured” from different things. But over time, my parents and we now as grownups never go to these people anymore if they do not have anything to show me that they have studied what I am coming for.

    I respect the people that learned so much through books and their parents that they have all kinds of great knowledge, but I dislike it strongly that people come and pretend something that is not true and make lots of money but never help a single thing.

    Very enlightening, your article.


    1. Thanks Oscar. In Malaysia we still have many, especially in the villages and many of the things they promote have absolutely no scientific basis or even religious basis. There’s still a lot of emphasis on the ‘unseen’ and if questioned the answer is usually a polite knowing smile and a ‘with time you’ll understand’.

      That’s not to say that all of them are bad. I believe there is a role for faith, but this also should be supported by some form of evidence.

      There’s rarely a fixed fee but rather a concept known as ‘duit ikhlas’ which literally means ‘sincere money’. These places will have long queues of people so I’m sure these guys make a lot of money in many cases.

  3. Hi Abdusalam, I agree with your article in principle, however I would like to point out that some naturopaths study for as many years the same text books as doctors and when the Diploma is granted, these natural practitioners are as qualified as a medical practitioner. But as you pointed out, there are so many MLM natural health “so called experts” out there promoting their “Snake Oil”, that they muddy the water for these highly qualified natural therapists. Extreme caution must always be applied in this area. It is also true that not all mainstream medical practitioners only promote “drugs”. It is also true that some naturopaths will recommend “drugs” if it is the most effective solution and natural remedies will not be powerful or effective enough. Each person is an individual and each individual’s disease will respond to different medication/remedies in a unique way. I loved your article and I am glad that you are bringing this subject out into the arena. Finally, I just want to mention that not all natural therapies are weaker and not as effective as pharmaceuticals. Cannibis Oil does not make the user “Bent” as the THC is not there, but apparently it powerfully improves Parkinsons Disease, Autism and Cancer. I do take Pharma when I need it but I will also look for a natural solution first. For example I use Feverfew unless my headache is too strong in which case I take paracetamol. Thanks for sharing. Have a great day. Dave

    1. I totally agree with your comments and that was the point I’m hoping to make with this article.
      There are many very qualified and experienced naturopaths but it is unfortunate that they tend to get painted with the same brush as the many scoundrels that are floating around.

      Your reference to Cannabis Oil is a good point; I actually used it when I had cancer and I’m planning to write a post about it in the near future. There is definitely an unwarranted stigma about it.

      Thanks for your comments and I hope you come visit again.

      All the best to you.


  4. Great article. Their is a lot of concern about quack doctors globally and they do more harm than good. I am TCM and meditation therapist and I have practiced natural medicine for over 20 years and I more than aware of their limitations and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend conventional treatment over anything natural. The beauty of TCM and meditation practices are that they work hand in hand with conventional medicine as long as you understand what you are doing. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who believe that a weekend course in what ever therapy allows them to be an expert on everything.

    1. Hi Simon. Sounds like you’re one of the sensible ones. You hit the nail on the head when you mention being aware of the limitations. Unfortunately their are too many who believe nature contains a ‘magic bullet’ that will guarantee a cure.
      We should understand that even with conventional therapies there are no guarantees.

      TCM is a fascinating subject and it’s not often that a European uses it, how did you get into that?

  5. I believe that going natural is always better because of the issues of side effects. doctors back in the day used natural remedies to help to bring about cures to many illnesses.
    It is good to see how people are now going back to those natural healers that are so beneficial. Your post has tons of great information that will be a great help to your readers.

    1. Hi Norman, for me personally I always prefer the natural option but we have to maintain a balanced viewpoint. There has to be some rational or scientific basis for the natural therapy being considered.

      The issue I’m trying to highlight is that we should not blindly accept the opinions of either the conventional doctor or the alternative therapist. Be skeptical, do the research, and then make a decision on what is the best way to go.

      Thanks for visiting and take care.

  6. I love the term Dr. Quack! My mother uses this term to refer to people who like to give out medical advice without having undergone any training whether “official” or otherwise. Perhaps they learnt from Google? However, and hopefully I don’t sound like a quack doctor myself I would recommend meditation to everyone. Often it is the healing of the mind and spirit we need which will naturally lead to the healing of our body.

    1. Thanks for your input Clark. I agree, I do believe that the mind and spirit can play a part in the healing process and definitely for the psychological aspect that a patient may be going through. The only criticism I would have on this matter is that there are many people who believe that meditation or prayer alone can heal their ailment and unfortunately forego any form of other treatment. There has to be a balance, what do you think?

  7. Thanks Abdusalam for the very informative post. I had wondered what the term quack doctor actually meant. I love discovering the origins or words, traditions and also the true meaning behind holidays. They get lost in time.

    Seems though that this is not the case with this word when it comes to modern people who try to sell you some unproven remedies. I would see if it was good for me before I took it. A good idea would be to check online for reviews.

    1. Hi Owain, I’m glad that I have solved your life long search for the meaning of ‘quack doctor’, lol.
      As you say, it is important to do your own research when considering alternative remedies. A lot of them do have some scientific basis but as you say, there are still many unproven and questionable therapies. It’s important also to get a qualified prognosis of whatever ailment the person may be suffering from. So many of the so-called practitioners simply don’t know and it’s almost as if they’re making up ailments just to sell their treatments. It’s unfortunate but as you say, with the advent of the internet it is much easier to find the necessary information to help make an informed decision.

  8. Hello lovely article, so well written and loved the old days graphics. I have witnessed natural treatments as well as quacks and where people seek treatment for local medicine man. I used to travel back home to the village once a year and they still had these practices and I was so surprised how firmly they believed the local medicine man and did not want to go to a doctor. While I came across a quack at a charitable holy place where they did not care if the doctor had any certificate and was practicing that trade since years until he killed someone oneday with the wrong medicine and was arrested and everyone realized he did not even go to a medical school. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Ramandeep, I’m so pleased that you liked the article. It’s sad that somebody died as a result of visiting one of these ‘quacks’. In many developing countries, I’ve observed that superstition and blind faith often lead to negative results and it’s a pity. In my case, I went to the conventional doctor for the diagnosis and thereafter did my own research for suitable alternative treatments and I chose those that have some scientific backing.

  9. My earliest recollection of quacks was in westerns. The crowds would gather around this imposing figure with all his elixirs on display. Have a look around you, today quacks are everywhere. Now they called scammers. People are still gullible and do believe that quacks or frauds will be the solution to their problem. With regards to herbalism, I would consult a doctor to ensure its safe to use.

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for your comments. I to have memories of the old westerns and the ‘snake oil’ salesman rolling into town. It is unfortunate that we still have such scoundrels around today who are all too eager to prey on the misfortunes of others. There is a lot of benefit in the use of herbs and natural medicines, but you’re right, people should always consult with their doctor and have an informed discussion about the alternative therapies out there. This will help them to understand the realities and the risks and hopefully get beyond the hype that is sometimes associated with the so-called ‘miracle’ cures. Natural therapies may not suit everybody, so qualified consultation is essential.

  10. Interesting article as i have never really thought about the term Quack taken too serious. The number of times i have heard people say ” The local quack” referring to their local GP, but like all things there is an historical relevance to the term and the use of alternative medicines. This is something that i personally would read up about to understand more about it.

    1. Hi Andrew, it is one of those historical terms that have stuck. The unfortunate thing is that there are still many living uptown the original intent of the name and effort needs to be made to understand who are the real doctors and practitioners and who are the real quacks.

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