Gwenyth Paltrow, with everyone’s favourite self-help guru, Oprah Winfrey
“I’M NOT A DOCTOR, BUT I PLAY ONE ON TV,” WON’T CUT IT. Yet millions of people are taking health advice from celebrities and all kinds of other people with no medical degrees. This is the latest—and most potentially dangerous—turn in our ever-expanding self-help craze.
The most immediate danger here is to the individuals who get sucked in by the heal-yourself quackery. But, there is a greater danger—to our entire public health care system. The whole idea that we don’t need doctors applying medical science to keep us healthy too easily leads to the idea that we don’t really need a robust and fully-funded public health care system. Do-it-yourself medicine will be good enough.
Who takes health advice from a movie star?
Gwenyth Paltrow, the Hollywood actress, is one of the most popular champions of this “don’t trust science” brigade. She makes money through her magazine Goop and by selling a line of oils, lotions, potions and magic rocks.
Goop recently told women to put $66 egg-shaped jade gemstones into their vaginas to increase “chi, orgasms, vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy.” The item is sold out on Goop’s online store—which means that actual people are actually doing this.
It’s not a good idea. Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN in San Francisco, told the Washington Post, not only is it “biologically impossible” for a rock to have an effect on your hormones, but it’s also a great way to cause problems like bacterial vaginosis and toxic shock syndrome.
Paltrow has also advised women to “steam” their vaginas—yet another thing that doctors warn can cause health problems—and to start every day by drinking a smoothie made up of ingredients that cost approximately $200, and have approximately zero actual proven health benefits.
More than a little dangerous
This sort of thing has always been around, of course: pseudo-scientific “alternative” medicine, lurking in the shadows, attracting those suspicious of the medical establishment. It can prove dangerous to your health. Now, with social media, this risky nonsense has been amplified many times over, to the point that it’s within nearly every credulous person’s reach. (A Google search for “natural remedies” yields nearly thirteen million results.)
Health care authorities are doing little to protect us from this quackery. However Graham MacKenzie, the pharmacist who owns Stone’s Drug Store Baddeck, in Nova Scotia, has taken direct action to protect his customers from wasting their money or harming themselves. He recently pulled homeopathic products from his store shelves for a simple reason: they don’t work.
“For quite a while now I’ve been thinking there are some things I’ve been putting on the shelf that I really, I can’t back up at all,” MacKenzie said.
“There’s a growing sentiment I think with professionals that these things really shouldn’t be sold at all. You have to be able to sleep at night when you’re selling stuff to people that doesn’t have anything in it. It’s tough to do that, so I just said, enough is enough, I’ll take it out of my store and, as much as I can, I’ll try to only keep evidence-based products here.”
Most “alternative therapies,” it is true, may not do much good but at least won’t do much harm either, especially in combination with regular medical treatment. But when people are aggressively warned against conventional medicine that could save lives we invite calamity: a young child dies from meningitis after being treated with garlic, onion and horseradish; “anti-vaxxers” dominate social media, warning parents against immunizing their children—measles, mumps and whooping cough make a comeback.
Unwell individuals are given “medicine” in solutions so diluted that not a molecule of the allegedly active ingredient can be found. Apricot pits are still being marketed as a cure for cancer.
Big Pharma doesn’t make it any easier for good medical practice to prevail. Its notorious penchant for medicalizing common conditions, and its marketing of expensive pills as remedies, can sow distrust and may unwittingly drive people into the arms of quacks.
A serious threat to public health
The public health system in Canada has become badly compromised. “We are…at a crisis point,” said the authors of a grim assessment in the Canadian Journal of Public Health last year. Public health “is under siege in many jurisdictions across Canada, where it has been weakened and marginalized and cannot be fully effective.”
They identify four critical areas where we have fallen short:
Diminished status of public health within Canadian governments and health authorities, with the result that primary prevention is diminished as well as long-term public health planning;
Erosion of the independent authority of medical officers of health—they have been fired or muzzled for speaking out against government policy;
Diminishing the scope of public health by combining public health and person-centred clinical care—two radically different forms of professional expertise;
A steady reduction in public health funding across the country.
Public health is mostly about prevention, popular education being a major part of that. But government cutbacks in this field—as deep as an alarming 33% cut to the budgets of Quebec regional public health units in 2015—have severely restricted the ability of public health workers that remain to do their jobs.
Canada now has one of the worst immunization rates in the developed world, in part because of anti-vaxxer misinformation, but also due to the more general lack of health awareness caused by the erosion of public health capacity.
Shrinking public health outreach creates a vacuum soon filled by “health populists,” like Gwenyth Paltrow. Poor public policy helps to create the conditions for this climate of ignorance.
A robust and efficient public health system is the best cure for that. Far better than any of the bogus cures celebrities and the gullible can offer us.
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