No Pseudomedicine for Women

women with microscope

For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women.

—Elizabeth Blackwell (The first female physician in the U.S.)

As a new blogger, I’ve been paying more attention to online health sources. I have noticed many of the media figures responsible for broadcasting false health information are female. This observation worries me: are women in the media taking advantage of female audiences?

When I practiced as a naturopath, the most common source of information that patients came in with was Dr. Oz. A patient, usually female, might have seen Dr. Oz chant about a specific miracle herb and wanted to give it a try. Perhaps they saw one of the many alternative medicine gurus he parades on his show and were inspired to establish me as their doctor. Female patients seemed drawn to me as a natural, non-toxic, and mindful type of doctor, so in that sense, naturopaths should be indebted to the Oz effect.

Lately, I find it refreshing to watch critics, trying to at least, hold Oz’s feet to the fire for his outlandish claims and unprofessional conduct. But I want to draw attention to a root issue, unlike Oz, who is but a symptom of the disease.

The Big O

American women seem most vulnerable to pseudoscientific health information. In 2013, the US Department of Labor estimated that women make approximately 80% of family health care decisions. It is no wonder women are being targeted for the big business of supplements, homeopathy, detox, and other pseudoscientific goods and services. Women have spending power, and influential women in the media seem to have a profound impact on consumer behavior.

We will never forget how Oprah propelled Dr. Oz into the spotlight, however I think it is fun to start with the most bizarre pseudomedicine she has promoted. Have you heard of John of God? She and her producer, who was “treated” by John of God in Brazil, show that John of God has superhuman healing powers. One of these abilities is to use his mind to perform “surgeries” on patients for almost any physical and mental condition. He also performs stage-tricks to fool patients into believing he is removing tumors from their bodies. (James Randi shows how this works.)

John of God is perhaps the most ridiculous pseudomedicine Oprah has promoted but is not the most dangerous. When she gave Jenny McCarthy a stage for her false accusations about how her son developed autism from the MMR vaccine, Oprah was playing with fire.

5759011129_fa7ab8a2da_z

The fear of vaccinations has led to many parents opting to vaccinate according to an alternative immunization schedule or not vaccinate at all. Unvaccinated subpopulations of children have contributed to the recent infectious disease outbreaks across the country, like the 2015 measles outbreak which began at Disneyland. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe, fringe ideas to the contrary were delivered by and continued to flow from Oprah’s media empire.

Oprah has also promoted The Secret, a book which espouses the virtue of using your mind to manifest your worldly desires; and Suzanne Somers, who promotes a painstaking regime of bio-identical hormones, supplements, and injections (some into her vagina!) to defy the course of aging.

Perhaps to make some episodes more legitimate seeming, Oprah has frequently hosted medical doctors who dabble in the woo. Dr. Christine Northrup, MD has discussed her belief that thyroid diseases are caused by a disruption of chakra energy in the throat. She also uses tarot cards in her medical practice to help diagnose disease.

Oprah has also given the stage to Dr. David Katz, MD, who argues that medical research needs to become more accommodating of lower quality evidence. This idea is particularly dangerous for patients. If doctors begin reinterpreting medicine by giving undeserved credit to data from poor studies, case reports, or anecdotal evidence, patients will receive worse care.

I see this effect in the naturopathic profession. Naturopathic care is stuck in a pit of history and ideology. Evidence of any kind is used to rationalize whatever therapeutic approaches that fit within these preconceived boundaries. If you are ever curious to see what naturopathic research is up to, check out the publication Naturopathic Doctors News and Review.

I know Oprah is philanthropic, and I appreciate her generosity and success story. As a minority woman, she is especially impressive to have made it in America. However, Oprah’s track record on science is dismal. She has given so much to many, but I think the time has come for her to get back to reality. Women all over the world look to Oprah for inspiration, and I am under the impression that the Oprah effect can rapidly influence public perception and action. I like to think that a more scientific Oprah could do many times more good than Oprah on woo-woo.

The Greek Goddess

It is not just on-screen personalities that use their fame to the detriment of women. Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post has grown an online media empire, which frequently publishes pseudomedicine. Huffington Post has a “naturopathic medicine” tag with which you can find dozens of articles that speak positively about the profession. It appears to me that since so little is known about naturopathic medicine, these media appearances seem to be instruments of legitimacy that naturopaths use to court lawmakers and the public.

A particular article from 2012 by Michael Standclift, ND struck a nerve. He attempts to explain to readers that licensed naturopaths are well-trained and scientifically oriented medical professionals. His description of the education and philosophy of naturopathic medicine, however, is a lazy replication of the falsehoods promulgated by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). So, right there, the message of the AANP is reproduced by a massive media outlet.

In fact, naturopaths do not take the same medical coursework as students in real medical schools, and the number of hours ND students study in these basic science courses shadows by comparison. I also made it clear on ScienceBasedMedicine.org that ND clinical training is grossly exaggerated and cannot possibly train medical pracitioners who are competent and safe.

One of the most prolific naturopaths on Huffington Post is Amy Rothenberg, ND. She is a board member of the AANP and president of the Massachusetts naturopathic association. If you watched any of the recent FDA hearing on homeopathy you might have seen Rothenberg argue that homeopathy is a safe and effective medical system and integral to the health of millions of Americans. Since homeopathy is pure magic, by which I mean it doesn’t work without breaking the laws of chemistry and physics, you get the sense for the level of scientific expertise that naturopaths bring to the table.

On Huffington Post, the word “homeopath” returns 228 articles, mostly written by homeopathy cheerleader Dana Ullman. A quick look through these articles reveals almost unanimous support for homeopathy and only lip service criticism to the fact that a system of medicine cannot be based upon sugar pills with Latin names. Ullman often claims that homeopathy works at the quantum level in our bodies to promote healing. Yet, as physicists are still trying to work out the complexities of quantum mechanics for themselves, and there has yet to even be a working quantum computer, how does Ullman or any other homeopath already have this quantum medicine breakthrough pinned down?

Screenshot 2015-04-27 09.44.30

Arianna Huffington, you can do better.

Other Ladies in La-La Land

Oprah and Huffington are two prominent examples of female media moguls pushing snake oil medicine. There are many more examples of aspiring women who are fully swimming (or drowning) in the sea of woo.

The Food Babe is an easy target. She once warned us all that the air we breath in airplanes is dangerous because it is full of nitrogen. She must not have known that the air we all breath standing on planet Earth is mostly nitrogen. From Yvette d’Entremont (a.k.a. SciBabe) recently handing her a royal can of whoop-ass, Food Babe seems quieter and has attempted to erase past gaffs, but I doubt she will ditch her fear mongering. Her messages are simply too attractive to an audience that is not comfortable with science.

Most appalling is Belle Gibson, the Australian blogger who faked brain cancer in order to profit from alternative cancer cures. In her blog, Gibson describes how avoiding conventional medicine and choosing natural medicine cured her cancer and kept her in remission. She went on to drive a nutrition enterprise based on dietary fixes for severe diseases. My stomach churns at the thought of cancer patients following her advice, buying her goods, and not treating themselves with scientifically backed therapies. Gibson is a complete disgrace and should be considered a criminal.

Looking around the blogosphere, I’ve noticed other media outlets focusing on women empowerment that also promote pseudomedicine. One group is EmpowHer.com, which was founded by a woman who sought alternative medicine after undergoing a hysterectomy. Her site often features health advice written by naturopaths trying to promote themselves online and in private practice. On Twitter, I was contacted to pitch a story for them, but I’m not so sure.

EmpowHer.com frequently encourages women to explore alternative health options for illness and medical issues, as you can see:

I’m not sure EmpowHer.com would want publish my take on alt-med or naturopathy, but I might consider writing an EmpowHER-ing anecdote about women in science and medicine. The group’s naturopaths will probably not be so happy.

Conclusion

I am stunned by what seems to be the exploitation of women by other women. It might be considered female-to-female intellectual violence. I use strong words because I am under the impression that the women in the media promoting pseudomedicine must know what they are doing. At least, they should know what they are doing. Someone, a producer, writer, or executive, must know these messages are hurting women.

I do not buy arguments that the media has a responsibility to cover both sides of a story on fringe medical topics. This is a classic example of false equivalency. The media has a social responsibility to get things right and cover issues with due diligence and accuracy. They should not give detoxification and superhuman healing powers equal weight to the corpus of knowledge gained from the careful application of the scientific method to health. It seems that the media has catastrophically lowered the bar.

Women deserve better because we largely remain mistreated by society. In America, we make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes doing the same job. We are underrepresented in politics, and our bodies’ freedoms are contested. I don’t think a female politician has ever said anything about how a woman’s anatomy can spontaneously reject pregnancy from rape. Yet, there is something very gross about Oprah promoting Suzanne Somer’s regime of injecting bioidentical hormones into the vagina that makes me feel violated.

It has been suggested by Jennifer Baumgardner, the Executive Director/Publisher at The Feminist Press that there may be a fourth wave of feminism happening now. She argues that this wave is interwoven with the rapid-fire media and social technology like blogs and Twitter.

I agree with Baumgardner. Social media has an impact. We need to identify this effect and translate it into accurate criticism of irresponsible health information.

We need more women in science. We need them to conduct more research and make important decisions where funding is allocated. We need young girls to develop an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. We need women to embrace science and use it to make our lives better.

I am humbled to see that many women are already working on it. Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick.org, is a great example of a woman strongly advocating women’s issues through the lenses of science and critical thinking. I’d say my views are more suited for Skepchick than EmpowHER.

I also stumbled upon this podcast produced by Science for the People which nicely discusses some of the history and current trends of women in STEM fields.

I don’t think it’s too idealistic to say that women should and will lead in science.

One day, we may usurp the Winfrey Wizard of Oz.

Image credits: 1) USAID, some rights reserved. 2) Surian Soosay, some rights reserved. 3) Screenshot of HuffingtonPost.com.
  • NH Primary Care Doc

    Don’t forget about essential oils. These MLM schemes like DoTerra and Young Living are almost exclusively peddled by women to other women and promise all sorts of miracle cures.

  • Albino Blackbear

    I can’t couldn’t emphatically agree more. I am always on the hopeful lookout for strong female voices who aren’t swayed by the current hip-ness of woo medicine. As a result I’ve been following Angelina Jolie’s story with her BRCA-1 mutation and her recent bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy with much interest.

    (Full disclosure: I find her to be a seriously kick-ass impressive, multi-talented and multi-dimentional human…and yes I know she was Laura Croft and yes I know she was married to Billy Bob, but she’s also a humanitarian and helicopter pilot so she’s forgiven on aforementioned fronts).

    Which is what made me so disappointed when she alluded to some women managing their gene mutation with “alternate medicine” and that she is using a “bio-identical estrogen”.

    Sigh.

    Cue my massive disappointment and subsequent line-up of women who now want to manage a deadly gene mutation with “alternative medicine” and “bio-identical” hormones.

    2 steps forward. 1 step back. Repeat.

  • Travis

    Great article except for one point which is incredibly misleading

    “In America, we make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes doing the same job.”

    This is misleading because it just takes into account the average amount of money made between men and women, not taking into account time worked (overtime), job (!), education, and a host of other important variables.

    Maddox recently covered this in an entertaining video (and article), which I’ll post below:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=312&v=BDj_bN0L8XM
    http://thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=hire_women

    (if for some reason links do not get posted then google “maddox how every company in America can save 23% on wages”)

    • The Man

      Maddox (?!) seems to be ignoring that these factors are still largely the result of discrimination. Women aren’t choosing to work less hours at lower-paying jobs.
      “Hire women” he tells us. The fact is, we don’t.

      • Travis

        Are they largely the result of discrimination, though? That seems to be the assertion but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that is is because of discrimination, and not just simply job preference that accounts for the 77% figure. I’m sure discrimination has some role in the more accurate 5-7% figure, but what is the evidence to back up that it is mostly or even significantly a result of discrimination?

        “Women aren’t choosing to work less hours at lower-paying jobs.”

        That’s quite the claim, but I don’t think it has been substantiated by anything.

        I’m sure you’re aware that women are less likely to aim for the higher paying positions in many fields because they are less likely to be able to fit the required role, because of maternity leave and other factors. Women are known to be more interested in jobs that better suit society and have higher job satisfaction even with lower pay, than men. There are so many variables to look at that broadly stating “it’s because of discrimination” is unjustified at best and misleading at worst.

        None of this takes away from my original comment that the way the 77% figure was used in this article is misleading to readers (it is factually false the way it is written)

      • Travis

        Ok, well for whatever reason it looked like my original reply didn’t work, so I’ll keep it brief:

        “Maddox (?!) seems to be ignoring that these factors are still largely the result of discrimination.”

        This is an assertion, that that 5-7% remaining is the result of discrimination. Why do you believe this?

        ” Women aren’t choosing to work less hours at lower-paying jobs.”

        This is also an assertion that seems unlikely to be true. Women choose the jobs they apply for just as much as men. There is some tendency to prefer some jobs over others, because men and women have some biological differences. When you take into account maternity leave, for example, women aren’t going to be able to hold some positions as reliably as a man, on average. That doesn’t mean they’re incapable or shouldn’t be able to, but I think it’s completely justified to acknowledge that it is usually the woman who becomes the “stay at home” parent. This will change the types of careers men and women opt to aim for or attain.

        ““Hire women” he tells us. The fact is, we don’t.”

        …? But ~half of the workforce is comprised of women. This seems to be a completely inaccurate statement.

        None of this addresses the fact in my original comment that this article uses the 77% figure in a misleading manner, suggesting that women hired for the same job will only be paid 77% as much as a man, on average. This is not what the 77% figure actually means.

    • Ken Hamer

      Instead of the rants of a professional bag of hot air, here’s something with actual evidence:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVhgKSULNQA

      • Travis

        I also watch healthcare triage, so I’m already familiar with this.

        I won’t say that there is NO gender pay gap in medicine. There very well might be (though the study he cites doesn’t make a very good case for it – check the comments on that video…).

        However, that in now way disputes my point that the 77% figure for “the same job” written by Britt is blatant misinformation. I’m disappointed to see that two weeks later she hasn’t addressed my point.

        Do you believe that women make 77% as much as men for the “same job”?

        If not, then you should be agreeing with me that Britt is misinforming readers on her otherwise fantastic blog.

        • https://www.naturopathicdiaries.com Britt Hermes

          Hi Travis, I am not ignoring you. I am just unsure about the statistic now. I thought the 77% statistic was pretty well known and accepted. Other than you, I have not had anyone dispute it or point me toward a different figure. So, I have not had much to contribute, as I am still mulling it over. (Plus I got distracted by molecular biology.) I would love to continue to read the input of readers on this point. Thank you for your support!

          • Travis

            The statistic is often used (by Obama, for example) and it is a real statistic, but not for the reason you’ve used it. It’s basically a comparison of money made by men vs made by women, without taking into account position, hours worked (overtime), education, and a host of other obvious factors. It is not a very useful figure but feminist lobbying groups and others will use it in a misleading way which is why so many (such as yourself, and myself not too long ago) will take the figure as undisputed.

            As explained in the article/video I linked to (and many others – I know some people will reject the video immediately as a “professional bag of hot air” – I just liked it because it was by someone I find entertaining and he covers most of the pertinent information in an easy to digest manner) the figure is not representative of the same work. It’s explained in quite some detail in a variety of articles. Although I don’t normally like to just tell people to google something, in this case you can easily find articles by HuffPo, Slate:
            http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/08/gender_pay_gap_the_familiar_line_that_women_make_77_cents_to_every_man_s.html
            The guardian, WSJ, and others addressing the figure.

            In short, the pay gap when you account for the most obvious variables drops down to about 5-7%. Is the rest discrimination? I don’t know. It probably depends on the job and region. It’s not as if women don’t have some benefits like being hired preferentially in STEM fields 2:1 (http://www.pnas.org/content/112/17/5360.abstract)

            Men are also known to be better at/more frequently negotiate for higher salaries. To assert that any disparity is due to sexism or discrimination I think is naive and counter-productive. I’m sure there is more nuance to it and I’m not also rejecting the possibility of some discrimination.

            • Taylor Hermes

              Yep. Confirmed. 77 cents per male working dollar is a misleading figure. The reality is more nuanced, which should perhaps be phrased more generally as “women still face economic disadvantages compared to men.”

            • Petticoat Philosopher

              And you think that women being, on the whole, less aggressive about negotiating salaries has nothing to do with sexism? Or the fact that women tend to choose careers that are more poorly paid? Why do you think so many female-dominant careers are so poorly paid? (Funny how when men enter previously female-dominant or female-only careers, they become better paid. This has happened with both teaching and nursing–although teachers still do not earn that much, they earn a lot more than when it was pretty much only women doing it. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When women enter previously male professions, they often become not only more poorly paid but also more socially devalued.)

              You’re right, it’s not always as simple as employers consciously deciding to pay women less for discriminatory reasons but the fact that women earn less than men absolutely is a function of institutional sexism in our society.

              • Travis

                I think negotiation can easily be explained through evolutionary means. Men are more aggressive and partake in more risk-taking behavior. I’m not saying it’s the only explanation, but I’m not convinced that it’s through cultural means.

                As for the rest, can you provide a source? I’m curious if this is difference in pay accounts for education and other factors.

                I think there might be some merit behind the idea that professions dominated by women are lower paying because historical, cultural means and men as the “breadwinners” but I haven’t given this question that much thought.

            • https://www.naturopathicdiaries.com Britt Hermes

              I read your sources. Thank you for providing them. It seems quite possible that the pay discrepancy is not as large as reported. But as you pointed out, there is still a discrepancy. I think there are FAR too many factors involved to come up with a strict number. Maybe reporting a range, like the pay difference is between these two percentages, is best option.

              My spam filters long posts with multiple links. Please be patient with it, as it is very helpful for filtering out the real spam, but sometimes people do get stuck in it.

          • Travis

            I think the comment filter ate my response again :/

  • Lynne

    “If you watched any of the recent FDA hearing on homeopathy you might have seen Rothenberg argue that homeopathy is a safe and effective medical system and integral to the health of millions of Americans.”

    Weren’t there a couple of NDs on this blog who tried to convince us that homeopathy plays little or no part in naturopathy? Yet naturopaths were some of the major proponents of homeopathy the FDA hearings and comments. That caught my attention immediately.

    • JGC

      “Weren’t there a couple of NDs on this blog who tried to convince us that homeopathy plays little or no part in naturopathy?”

      John O’Malley comes to mind, who also promised to provide citations to evidence based medical studies validating the efficacy of acupuncture once he returned from vacation.

      That was more than a month ago, however–perhaps he meant to say “back from sabbatical”?

  • WL

    I’d love to hear from some lawyers about the lack of malpractice actions against NDs and other CAM quacks. I would presume two difficulties: first, CAM nonsense has no standard of care, so there is no easily measurable departure upon which to base a claim–that is, a quack treating a breast lump with “quantum qi modulated aromatherapy” or some such drivel probably isn’t directly causing harm since the treatment doesn’t actually exist in this universe. The lack of correct diagnosis (suppose that the lump is cancerous) is far more serious, but would a judge or jury take seriously a claim from a patient who swallowed the woowoo? Could the quack simply say that s/he was “following the principles of quackopathy” and avoid liability?

    Second, patients and practitioners of quackopathies are essentially engaging in what amounts to religious rites and rituals. Would that have legal effects?

    I hasten to add that I think the medical malpractice situation in the US is generally very destructive and needs a great deal of modification, but I don’t understand why it doesn’t seem to get applied with any great frequency to CAM quacks–any MD who would work at such a low level of competence would be sued out of business within weeks. Out and out quackery would seem to me to be the appropriate target at which to aim the legal system.

    • JustAThought

      Lack of malpractice? It could be because of the patient-doctor relationship that NDs are known for emphasizing in quality and length of appointment. Studies show an inverse relationship between satisfaction and malpractice claims in care settings. Sometimes, being listened to is therapeutic in itself.

      • WL

        Good point. Still, the quacks do cause real harm, their “treatments” aren’t freebies, and they do claim actual expertise in diagnostics. Even eliminating harmed patients who would never give up the quasi-religious belief in quackopathies, I would think that there would remain a fair number who catch on to the fact that they have been harmed. I really don’t know.

  • kaitch

    I have been fuming about this very thing – I’m embarrassed as a woman (in a scientific field) to see so much crap accepted by and perpetuated by women. I’m glad someone got around to writing about it, as I hadn’t even quite worked out a Facebook status, much less a blog post!

  • JustAThought

    Britt, I take note that my comment in reply to WM wasn’t directly talking about women as your blog post is all about, but why would you delete my comment? It’s like you want to steer the comments…I understand you want to keep it on topic, but that’s not fair. Especially when the commenter I replied to wasn’t on topic either!

  • JustAThought

    My sincere apologies for the previous comment…It showed up as deleted on my end. I retract my statement and apologize for the fundamental attribution error.

  • Alanna

    Here is how this woman got steared away from trusting MDs. Since the age of 12, I’ve had debilitating endometriosis. No dr diagnosed me until I insisted on a laparoscopy in my 20s. Up until then, I was told to take powerful pain medicines and call it a day. The medicines they prescribed did not stop the pain, but added to it when they started to eat at the lining of my stomach. My condition worsened and the surgery made it even worse. I also started to develop severe allergies, and I was infertile. My first taste at relief came from purchasing an herb called cramp bark. That opened my mind to trying more complicated herbal formulas and eventually acupuncture. I saw a reproductive endocrinologist the same day I saw an acupuncturist – it was my first visit with both of them. He told me that my body was too toxic for a baby to form and grow on its on. The solution, IVF to the tune of thousands of dollars. For that advise, he charged $150 dollars. The acupuncturist charged me $30 and reminded me, “it only takes one egg.” I was pregnant within a week with her help after 5 years of treatment and surgery from MDs. I love doctors and trust them to an extent. I believe in vaccinations. But I also believe we must all be responsible for our care. There is a dearth of research about managing very common women’s conditions. Sexism in the field of science maybe? It is sexism to suggest that women are less logical by seeking out alternative medicine. Many, like myself, have only found relief that way. Meanwhile, women with polycystic ovarian disease, endometriosis, fibroids, etc who trust mainstream medicine only are left to suffer alone, silently until they are advised to have a hysterectomy. I say, if you see certain forms of healing as pseudoscience, do not chose it for yourself. But please do not try to limit my options and my freedom to explore. My open mindedness literally saved my life by ending my pain, and it created life by helping me heal

  • Mrs Woo

    Wow Alanna. Lovely anecdote. I, too, had trouble conceiving. I was told if I decided I didn’t want kids and agreed to work in the church nursery I would be pregnant in six months. The advice was free and he will be seventeen in September!

  • nursestudentWOOman

    Bertrand Russell argued that individual actions are based upon the beliefs of the person acting, and if the beliefs are unsupported by evidence, then such beliefs can lead to destructive actions. Russell, Bertrand (1928). “On the Value of Scepticism.”
    The anecdote was lovely, but was just that – an anecdote. Women need to speak out against pseudoscience, especially in the US.