Six signs you are being treated by a quack

The term ‘quack’ is often employed as a disrespectful description for clinicians, particularly those who are unskilled, ignorant, dishonest and employ bogus therapies for a profit. Quacks are everywhere, I am afraid, but alternative medicine seems like a promised land to them. Quackery endangers our wealth and, more importantly, our health.

To protect yourself from quackery, it is essential to be able to recognise the quacks’ ‘tricks of the trade’ and to take appropriate action against them. In this two-part article, I will disclose some of the most popular ploys used by quacks operating in the realm of alternative medicine, and I will offer some advice on quackery prevention.

Treating non-existent conditions
There is nothing better for enhancing a quack’s cash flow than allowing him to treat a condition that does not exist. Many alternative practitioners have made a true cult of this handy option. Go to a chiropractor and you will, in all likelihood, receive a diagnosis of ‘subluxation’; consult a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and you might be diagnosed as suffering from ‘chi deficiency’; see a homeopath and he might tell you that your ‘vital force’ needs boosting.

The beauty of a non-existing diagnosis is that the practitioner can treat it, and treat it, and treat it… until the client has run out of money or patience. Just before this point, however, the practitioner would proudly inform you that ‘you are completely healthy now’. This happens to be true, of course, because you have been healthy all along.

My advice for avoiding such exploitation: make sure that the diagnosis given by someone you suspect of quackery is correct; if necessary consult a real healthcare professional.

It must get worse before it gets better
When, after receiving regular treatments, patients feel not better but worse, quacks tend to tell them that this is entirely normal — because things have to get worse before they get better. They call this a ‘healing crisis’. But the healing crisis is a phenomenon for which no compelling evidence has ever been produced.

Imagine a patient with moderately severe symptoms consulting a clinician and receiving treatment. There are only three things that can happen to her:

— she can get better,
— she might experience no change at all
— or she might get worse.

In the first scenario, the practitioner would obviously claim that his therapy caused the improvement. In the second scenario, he might say that, without his therapy, symptoms would have deteriorated. In the third scenario, a quack would tell his patient that she is experiencing a healing crisis. In other words, the myth of the healing crisis is little more than a trick of the trade to make patients continue supporting the quack’s livelihood.

My advice: when you hear the term ‘healing crisis’, go and find a real doctor to help you with your condition.

A cure takes a long time
But there are other ploys to deal with patients who fail to improve after long-term therapy. Let’s assume your problem is back pain, and that the pain has not eased despite numerous treatments and large amounts of money spent. Surely in such a situation you would call it a day. You will have had enough. And this would, of course, be a serious threat to the quack’s cash flow.

To avert the shortfall, the practitioner merely has to explain that your condition has been going on for a very long time (if this happens not to be true, the practitioner would explain that the pain might be relatively recent but the underlying condition is chronic). Naturally, this means that a cure will also have to take a very long time — after all, Rome was not built in one day!

The continuation of ineffective treatments despite the absence of any improvement is usually not justifiable on medical grounds. It is, however, entirely justifiable on the basis of financial considerations: quacks rely on their patients’ regular payments and will therefore think of all sorts of means to achieve this aim.

My advice is to see a clinician who can help you within a reasonable and predictable amount of time. Insist on a proper treatment plan from the outset and stop if it is not fulfilled.

Thinking holistically
The notion that alternative medicine takes care of the whole person attracts many consumers. Never mind that nothing could be further from being holistic than, for instance, diagnosing conditions by looking at a patient’s iris (iridology), or focussing on her spine (chiropractic, osteopathy), or massaging the soles of her feet (reflexology). And never mind that any type of good conventional medicine is by definition holistic. What counts is the label, and ‘holistic’ is a most desirable one indeed. Nothing sells quackery better than holism.

Most quacks rub their false holism into the minds of their patients whenever and however they can. It has the added advantage that they have seemingly plausible excuses for their therapeutic failures. Imagine a patient consulting a practitioner with depression and, even after prolonged treatment, her condition is unchanged.

In such a situation, quacks do not need to despair: they will point out that they never treat diagnostic labels but always the whole person. Therefore, the patient’s depression might not have changed, but surely other issues have improved… and, if the patient introspects hard enough, she might find that her appetite has improved, that her indigestion is better, or that her tennis elbow is less painful (given enough time, things do change). The holism of quacks may be a false pretence, but its benefits for a quack’s income are undeniable.

My advice: take holism from quacks with more than a pinch of salt.

Detoxification
Many quacks surprise their patients by informing them that they are being poisoned. Subsequently, they insist that they need to ‘detox’ and, as it happens, their type of treatment is ideally suited to achieve this aim. Detox is short for detoxification which, in real medicine, is the term used for weaning addicts off their drugs. In alternative medicine, however, the term has become a marketing tool devoid of any medical sense.

The poisons in question are never accurately defined. Instead, you will hear vague terminologies such as metabolic waste products or environmental toxins. The reason for that lack of precision is simple: once the poison is named, we would be able to measure it and test the efficacy of the treatment in question in eliminating it from the body. But this is the last thing quacks want — because it would soon establish how bogus their claims really are.

None of the alternative therapies claimed to detox your body do, in fact, eliminate any toxin; all they do take from us is our cash.

Your body has organs (skin, lungs, kidneys, liver) which take care of most of the toxins you are exposed to. If any of these organs fail, you do not need homeopathic globuli, detoxifying diets, nor electric foot baths, nor any other charlatanry; in this case, you are more likely to need intensive care in an A&E department.

My advice is, as soon as you hear the word ‘detox’ from an alternative practitioner, ask for your money back and go home.

The test of time
Many alternative therapies have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. To the quacks, this fact means that these interventions have ‘stood the test of time’. They argue that acupuncture, for instance, would not be in use any more, if it were not effective. For them, the age of their therapy is like a badge of approval from millions of people before us, a badge that surely weighs more than any amount of scientific studies.

But let’s get real: we are talking of technologies, of course, health technologies, in fact. Would we argue that a hot air balloon is an older technology than an aeroplane and therefore better suited for transporting people from A to B?

The fact that acupuncture or any other alternative therapy was developed many centuries ago might just indicate that it was invented by people who understood too little about the human body to come up with a truly effective intervention. And the fact that blood-letting was used for centuries (and thus killed millions), should teach us a lesson about the true value of ‘the test of time’ in medicine.

My advice is to offer leeches, blood-letting and mercury cures to the quacks who try to persuade you that the ‘test of time’ proves anything about the value of their quackery.

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of A Scientist in Wonderland and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.


  • kingkevin3

    These criteria are largely applicable to main stream medicine too. Take HIV as an example.

    Treating non-existent conditions.
    HIV has never been isolated from the blood from anyone supposedly infected with it. AIDS on the other hand does show a remarkable correlation between a fasttrack lifestyle and AIDS defining illnesses. Furthermore the spread of HIV does not resemble how a virus spreads. It only affects a very small number of fast-living Gays. Here the correlation is striking. Whatever happened to the HIV pandemic?

    It must get worse before it gets better
    Perfectly healthy people are diagnosed HIV and immediately put on to antiretroviral drugs. Suddenly they start showing the classic symptoms of AIDS. In this case of course things will never get better. The quacks don’t tell you what their retroviral drugs do, they just tell your relatives you died because of viral infection, not the toxic drugs they fed you.

    A cure takes a long time
    Initially the virologists promised a “vaccine” within 2 years. More than 35 years later we are still waiting and waiting and waiting….meanwhile we create a new wonder drug called Truvada that actually prevents HIV infection and make even more billions in profit.

    The Test of Time
    We are virologists who know what we are doing. Just look at all those vaccines we have invented which have stood the test of time. They never mention morbidity in the west has been declining continually since the mid-early 1900s because of clean water, sanitation etc which has nothing to do with taking toxic vaccines.

    On top of this the virologists will tell you HIV remains inactive in your body for years. It can wake up at any time and start destroying your T-Cells.They can’t tell you how this actually happens of course because they don’t know. They will tell you it’s so small it cannot be detected by direct means. Which means a virus can never be isolated from the blood of someone who is supposedly infected with it.It can only be cultured from cell lines that have been grown from leukemia cells and have had any number of toxins added to them to promote growth of the “virus”. The virus is then detected via reverse transcriptase, a process common to all living cells. It is not detected directly. In other words the viruses are never extracted from the culture and isolated such that they can be easily identifiable in an electron micrograph.

    But hey who needs proof? Now this is what I call really quackery.

    • Moz Gren

      Most HIV infections “…only affects a very small number of fast-living Gays”? No, most are caused by unprotected heterosexual encounters in Africa (typically via prostitution).
      Antiretroviral drugs have saved countless lives. Before the HIV was identified death was only a matter of a couple of years. Most sufferers have near normal life expectancy nowadays.That’s not to say modern drugs have no side effects.
      Since when and where did anyone promise a vaccine “within 2 years”? No scientifically literate person would make any such prediction about what was, essentially, unknown. Also, HIV is a retrovirus and not like the vastly more simple Ebola.
      It’s true that improvements in sanitation have come about in parallel with improvements in other technologies, healthcare and nutrition – in the West and developed world.
      Western/modern medicine is a massive achievement which dwarfs the institutional guesswork of the Hippocratic era and most traditional snake oil. There is huge demand for it because people know it works. It cannot often cure psychosomatic problems and that’s where some relatively harmless ‘alternative’ treatments may have some use as placebos in place of more evidence based psychotherapies

      • Moz Gren

        Also, HIV is detected via the specific antibodies which try, usually in vain, to contain it. Hence the term, ‘antibody positive.’ This is the only cost effective (in terms of both time and money) method of diagnosing it.

      • Peter Wong

        >”viruses are never extracted from the culture and isolated such that they can be easily identifiable in an electron micrograph.” ………… I thought the self-anointed ‘Perth Group’s’ bs about the HIV virus supposedly not really existing died out long ago.

    • r wesley edwards

      Are you joking w this?

  • davidofkent

    Those real healthcare professionals have been demanding that we swallow statins each day for a non-existent problem with fat in the blood. Those healthcare professionals receive money from the government (aka taxpayers) for prescribing this rubbish. Then there are the non-existent medical problems of dyslexia (failure to learn how to read), ADHD (bad behaviour requiring a slap on the legs), depression requiring expensive and addictive drugs (aka feeling a bit down today and needing attention), eating disorders requiring expensive medical intervention (stuffing too many Greggs pies in your mouth). Just because I’m a reactionary, it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong about everything!

    • Read Margaret McCartney’s The Patient Paradox. Oh, and remember that problems with real medicine validate quackery in precisely the same way that plane crashes validate magic carpets.

      • Sennju

        I’m stealing that excellent magic carpet analogy mate.

    • jeffpickthall

      Depression is not “feeling a bit down today”. I hope you find out for yourself. Soon.

      • r wesley edwards

        I, personally, wouldn’t wish clinical depression on an ignorant person. Mebe a freak bus accident. But never depression.

    • banshee

      *goes out to buy tinfoil futures*

    • Ripley Timewarp

      Getting slapped never helped with ADHD. ADHD makes it very difficult to control impulses, and resorting to violence is just an impulsive action and sets a bad example. Lasting punishments such as a loss of privileges, cutting the allowance and time outs actually force the child to deal with consequences of their actions.
      Dsylexia is actually a problem with brain function, making it hard to learn to read in the first place.
      Depression can either be a problem with brain function or a result of serious issues in life causing severe distress. It can lead into a dangerous cycle of self neglect and denial that stops sufferers from seeking help.
      Eating issues are often dangerous learned behaviors, or linked to a person having issues with control.
      Don’t assume that just because a disability isn’t physical or visible means it’s just made up. Attitudes like that are the stigma that get in the way of real treatment.

  • Timm

    The best quack I ever went to was an Osteopath. She was about 4 foot 6, gave me a thorough working over and told me I would ache for a bit for the rest of the day but would feel better in the morning. She was right. That was 25 years ago and my backache has never returned.

  • Quacks also exist in psychiatry, look at Wilhelm Reich’s bizarre “orgone therapy,” in which everything in life, including your medical condition, is reduced to your ability to experience an intense orgasm the way Reich says you should. I was unfortunate enough to be treated by an orgone practitioner as a child and he repeatedly molested me.

  • DKeane123

    Amazing how many comments from people who feel they know more than the published medical scientific literature…

    • Peter Wong

      Uni of Google is very authoritative to some.

      • Wilko

        ..and misleading to others..

  • This is poorly written and thought out. And I subscribe to the scientific method. Some of it makes sense. But, come on, it can’t get worse before it gets better? Yeah, better skip that chemotherapy then. Better not have that dislocated shoulder popped back in. Better not apply that burning disinfectant to the wound. You shouldn’t treat a person “holistically?” Sure, the term has its bad publicity, but, guess what, many conditions showing up in one part of the body can be caused by problems elsewhere. Example 1: food allergen in stomach gives you a headache. Example 2: inflammatory markers spike due to severe injury, weakening immune system and bringing on flu. Example: liver infection leads to sensation of extremely itchy skin. By your logic, take headache tablets for the first case, treat the flu symptoms in the second, and apply soothing skin creams in the third. Of course it’s important to treat the entire system and not just the symptoms that pop up! This is why health care is so expensive–instead of nipping it in the bud, people like you prescribe treating the symptoms only and taking expensive extreme measures once the ailments become emergencies. Some of your conclusions regarding quacks are accurate, but your logic is so terrible that you may as well be one of them.

    • EeroK

      Did you really read the article? You have some strong straw man action going on there. It seems you’re trying to apply your logic to arguments that weren’t even there…

      Of course there are treatments, like chemo, that have side effects and therefore “it can get worse before it gets better”. But that’s a different story. In those cases we know why and how the side effects appear and that they aren’t actually the condition getting worse, but something else. If I would be giving antibiotics to a patient and his temperature would just keep rising, I would know that the therapy isn’t working. Quacks say that is just part of the deal. It _should_ work like that. (And if it doesn’t then it shouldn’t 😉 )

      What the article describes is that your quack often tells you that it’s normal that it gets worse first and then it gets better, without _any_ proven mechanism whatsoever.. And they really do that. In German, home of the homeopathy, there is even a word for that “Erstverschlimmerung”. They say it _should_ get worse, before it gets better, that’s how homeopathy “works” (read: well, it doesn’t but the most things that are treated with it usually go away by themselves…) And if it doesn’t, then it still did work. No matter what happens, we did something positive, yay! Just think about a common cold: you go to a homeopath, he gives you something. Maybe your cold gets worse first, maybe better, no matter, at some point it will get better -> your quack tells you it was their remedy, because it’s normal that those things happen. Without having any scientific explanation why. There is a huge difference to scientifically tested and proven therapy side effects.

      Holistic approach is part of standard medical care, as also stated in the article. There ain’t a doctor out there that thinks that he is curing someone by just treating the symptoms or doing anything you’re describing there. You are just building a straw man.

      Of course there a incompetent or greedy MD’s out there too, that make mistakes, do false diagnoses and/or make poor decisions, but that has nothing to do with this article. It’s a totally different story.

      • Yes, I read the article. And you need to learn what a straw man argument is. What you are probaby referring to are analogies. Analogies based on the author’s awful logic. Because if a patient reads this and takes it to its logical conclusion, yes, they may decline any treatment that makes it worse before it gets better, because obviously they’re being treated by a quack. The fact that I have to explain this simple logic to you means the rest of your response wasn’t worth reading, sorry.

        • EeroK

          And you need to understand, that if you are building a version of the article, that doesn’t exist (for example building analogies about the author saying that people shouldn’t be treated “holistically”, even though that is the exact opposite of what it says in the article) and argue against something, that the author didn’t say, whether you do it with an analogy or any other means, that is the exact definition of a straw man argument.

          If my doctor would say to me “this makes it (your condition) worse before it makes it better”, I probably would change doctors, because that would either be a quack or I have a doctor that seriously needs some training on explaining things to patients. What he should be saying is: “this therapy has side effects” and then give you professional information about them and maybe offer you something to fight against them. And then tell you to contact a medical professional if you aren’t getting better.

          Side effects aren’t “it getting worse”, those are two totally different things. Your cancer isn’t spreading because of the chemotherapy, your diarrhea shouldn’t be getting even more horrible because of the pills we described and your chronic pain should not get worse after we adjust your therapy and your shoulder shouldn’t be becoming even more dislocated after we pop it back in. But you might have side effects, which you should be informed about.

          The quacks, mostly homeopaths, are saying: “Your flu/diarrhea/stomach ache/allergy/whatever will get worse, before it gets better, that’s how our therapy works”. You see the difference here, I hope? Those ain’t side effects. That is your actual condition, that you are seeking to treat, getting worse. Two very different things.

          But I don’t think it makes any sense to argue further, as you apparently are reading my comments just as well as you did the original article. Have a nice weekend! 🙂

  • Peter Wong

    >”problems with real medicine validate quackery in precisely the same way that plane crashes validate magic carpets.” ……………………. bwahahaha. That is Gold. Definitely stealing that.

    • SunnyD

      stealing is wong. two wongs don’t make a wight

  • banshee

    Weight Watchers touts its newest program as “holistic” at the same time Oprah becomes the pitchwoman. Coincidence? I think not. That woman has unleashed at least three major charlatans on a gullible public.

  • lwop90

    Leeches are actually still used in modern medicine. Example: Skin grafts for burn victims. The leeches are used to suck up any pooling blood under the skin during the healing process, and the blood thinners they release while doing so prevent clots and encourage circulation thereby increasing the success of the graft. That’s just one example.

  • Christos Poulakis

    Well , this sounds like a description of the average public therapist in No(r)way … 😛

  • You are being treated by a ´real doctor´……. when: The therapist insists that you must have a diagnosis, are using all his or her effort to get you labelled – in order to ´help you´………..when: The prescribed drugs are designed to block or exclude symptoms from your organism, – something which sooner or later – of course – is going to give you severe adverse effects/symptoms (more serious diseases). When the therapist isn´t capable of giving you a coherent answer when you ask to define the fenomena disease…what symptoms really represent – what they really tell about the state of mind and body when they occur. This is the signs to observe when you are being treated by a ´fully licensed physician´´….and the time to run (if you are capable..)

  • Wilko

    People talk about “supplementary”, “complimentary” “alternative” medicines (SCAMS) and healthcare, but in reality there is only one kind and that is the kind that can’t be irrefutably shown to work……..and that unfortunately excludes just about everything accept science-based medicine.

    It is sad that even quite intelligent people don’t understand what scientific “proof” means and still think that the plural of anecdote is data.

  • Jynxie Wavemaiden Copeland

    #1 your name is Ingrid Griffith… cause she only likes quacks… it’s my mom. She knows but keeps going.