Junkfood Science: Beware the pretenders

September 18, 2007

Beware the pretenders

Skepticism has gotten a bad rap. A lot more of it could save a lot of lives and a lot of people a lot of money and pain.

It’s alarming how readily people will trust the advice of someone who simply says they’re a medical professional, scientist or expert. This is especially the case when it comes to information about weight loss, food and health. An incredible story from Kentucky about a woman posing as a doctor at an obesity clinic and bariatric patient support group, and giving diet and medical advice, has rocked the blog world. The full moral of the story, however, has yet to be realized.

First, the news from local television stations:

Alleged Imposter Dr. Posts Bond, Appears In Court Sept. 25

The woman accused of impersonating a doctor at a hospital in Scott County has bonded out of jail and is scheduled to appear in Scott District Court Tuesday, Sept. 25.... The former hospital secretary is charged with improperly posing as a doctor and giving medical advice to patients at an obesity clinic.... White was a patient at the Georgetown Bariatrics Center. She became friends with patients and doctors at the clinic. She eventually observed two surgeries and offered advice to other patients in a support group.

White claimed she was a medical student at the University of Louisville and in a surgical residency....White wore a stethoscope at the center, along with a white lab coat [and] apparently learned some medical terminology from her three years' experience as a hospital secretary in Louisville and Lexington.

As has been discussed before, it is very common for dieters and post bariatric surgery patients to become so caught up in the almost religious-like conversions they feel during the Honeymoon phase, and to be so convinced that “eating issues” made them fat and that they will die unless they lose weight, that they pursue converts with a passion.

Dr. Westby G. Fisher, M.D., FACC, a board certified internist, cardiologist, and cardiac electrophysiologist at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, Evanston, IL, voiced a troubling concern today that the government has made things even easier for those who might want to impersonate a doctor. The government is now making an online database that doctors are mandated to complete in order to practice medicine available to the public. It’s not only a concern for the personal safety and identity security for doctors, but the public database has every piece of information imposters might need to know.

The greatest risks for consumers, however, aren’t the people you meet wearing lab coats and stethoscopes. They’re on the internet.

The internet is inundated with entities, hiding behind pseudo-identities, who present themselves as well-meaning healthcare professionals, nutritional experts and scientists, and offer information and advice. These unnamed personas are no different than a masked person you might meet in a dark alley. Some will work for years to be your friend, gain your trust and build a following, but they could be anyone and very often aren’t who they appear to be. Incredibly, most surfers would never think to open an email from an unknown source, but they will readily take and believe medical information about their bodies from a total stranger on the internet. Most consumers tirelessly check out their doctors’ credentials and backgrounds before entrusting their lives to them, but will readily take and believe medical information about their bodies from a total stranger on the internet.

In reality, the information strangers on the internet give is no more trustworthy than something offered by a stranger standing next to you in the check-out line.

Yet blogs, patient support groups, forums, message boards, chat rooms, MySpace and LiveJournal are filled with online personas that innocent surfers trust as credible sources for information about their bodies, health and food. An honest and legitimate healthcare professional wouldn’t be afraid to tell you who they are and openly stand behind the information they give you. Certainly, a degree or letters after a person's name doesn’t mean that their information is necessarily sound, but at least you have a fighting chance to check them out and decide for yourself.

Some very credible doctors and nurses do blog under pseudo-names out of concern for protecting their patients’ privacy, but they will clearly state their qualifications and credentials. To help you identify actual medical professionals, growing numbers of medical bloggers today are posting the “Healthcare Blogger code of ethics” symbol which is awarded to those who are following a code of ethics, have actually been checked out as medical professionals, are giving readers their true credentials and background, and are not trying to sell you something.

But if someone on a blog community with a funny-sounding name offers information or advice about your diet, body or health, think of it as nothing more than entertainment. It is certainly not medical or diet information to take to the operating table, grocery store or drug store.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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