The cure for cancer might be just around the corner, but the cure for quack therapies probably isn’t. We all know someone with health ideas that are too good to be true. Losing weight with the right herbal tea. Boosting the brain with weird berries. Once you begin clinical rotations as an AUA student, or a residency after graduating, some of these folks could become your patients.
Besides a drain on the wallet, most of these “remedies” are harmless in and of themselves. The problem is when patients swear by them instead of real medicine. Some alternative remedies, like homeopathy, can be a life-threatening distraction from real medicine. How do you encourage your patients to trust you over the snake oil?
That’s the key: trust. It can be hard to establish trust when good science is about proving yourself wrong so you can get closer to the truth. Health craze peddlers don’t have this problem. Bigger marketing budget aside, they have a sense of total confidence and certainty. They suffer – or benefit – from the Dunning-Kreuger Effect. It’s what happens when someone with little knowledge or skill also lacks the self-awareness to know how wrong they are.
And while there are plenty of blogs by scientists about how they deal with the pseudoscience they find on social media or TV, you’re a doctor. Arguing in person with a vulnerable patient who is convinced some herbal infusion will help them isn’t easy, or even productive. That’s especially true if other mainstream remedies have already failed them.
We wish there was an easy answer, but there isn’t. Still, there are things you can say, and things to avoid saying, to try to walk a patient back from believing in bunk.
Do practice communicating everything you’ve learned at American University of Antigua to friends and family. Ask them to be honest about your style of communication, and whether or not they get it. Practice talking about real medicine in the friendliest way you can.
Don’t talk down to a patient, especially an emotionally vulnerable patient. If they’re willing to still accept your care and advice, don’t worry if they’re also dabbling in sketchy alternatives – as long as those alternatives are harmless.
Do remind them of all the millions of lives saved by evidence-based medicine. Remind them of how many children are alive and well because of the Polio and Smallpox vaccines. Hook them with the magic of what real medicine can do!
Combating quackery is just another part of learning your bedside manner, a skill set we take very seriously here at AUA College of Medicine. Learning to communicate builds trust, and trust is one of the best remedies you can bring to bear.