Common medical scams that should be on every one’s radar

Healthcare fraud is big business. In research cited by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, conservative estimates peg the cost of US healthcare fraud at $68 billion annually. This number could be as high as $230 billion, or a whopping 10% of the country’s healthcare costs.

Weight loss products with false claims are just one of many common medical scams that patients may fall for. As a physician, I will not accept (or promote) fraudulent healthcare claims or practices. Nevertheless the public could be duped from many sources. With that in mind, let’s take a look at four common forms of healthcare fraud.

False weight-loss ads

According to the CDC, in 2017-2018, 42.5% of the American population aged 20 years or older was obese and 73.6% was obese and overweight.

Many Americans want to shed pounds and often look for an easy fix. But the FTC warns of fraudulent weight-loss products. In addition to being ineffective, these products, such as pills, powders, patches, or creams, can be dangerous.

The Commission provides tips on spotting fraudulent products in advertising. The ads often promise the following::

  • Weight loss without diet/exercise
  • Permanent weight loss
  • Not having to monitor intake
  • “30 pounds in 30 days”
  • A cream or patch that causes weight loss
  • A product that “works for everyone”
  • Magical pills that result in weight loss

But here are the real facts:

  • The only diets that work involve sensible caloric intake, often abetted by exercise.
  • FDA-approved fat-absorption blockers or appetite suppressants work only with a low-fat/low-calorie diet and exercise plan.
  • No “one-size-fits-all” product or service exists for weight loss.
  • Lasting weight loss requires permanent changes in diet and exercise patterns.
  • No weight-loss product is effective on a (dangerous) lightning-fast timeline.
  • No weight-loss product allows the user to eat all they want.
  • Patches don’t work for weight loss.

False infertility supplements

According to the Office on Women’s Health, nearly 10% of American women between 15 and 44 years of age struggle with getting or staying pregnant. These women may purchase false fertility treatments.

In May 2021, the FDA issued warnings to five companies for illegally selling supplements that claim to cure, treat, mitigate, or prevent infertility and other reproductive diseases.

“Dietary supplements that claim to cure, treat or prevent infertility and other reproductive health conditions can potentially harm consumers who use these products instead of seeking effective treatments, such as FDA-approved drugs or assisted reproductive technology,” said Judy McMeekin, PharmD, of the FDA. “Protecting the health and safety of Americans is the FDA’s highest priority, and we will remain vigilant in warnings about products and companies that place consumers at risk.”

Other bogus healthcare products

Scam healthcare products are not only limited to weight loss and can include a host of other purported drugs and supplements, including those that fight cancer, dementia, or infections.

According to the FDA, “Scammers promote their products with savvy marketing, often using tactics that target specific populations via the web and email, but also by word-of-mouth, newspapers, magazines, TV, and direct mail. Health fraud scams run rampant on social media sites and closed messaging apps, such as Signal, Viber, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.”

They added, “Health fraud scams can also be found in other locations such as convenience stores, gas stations, flea markets, and nontraditional stores, targeting those with limited English proficiency and limited access to healthcare services and information. Other risks include potentially dangerous or unproven products ordered directly from overseas sources via mail to circumvent normal Customs and FDA inspections and other safety measures.”

And now, the latest

Ivermectin; The drug is most commonly given to livestock as an antiparasitic (intestinal worms), but now being promoted by widely most notably by mass media, people are now buying it for themselves in an effort to stay protected from COVID. Using Ivermectin for COVID is not recommended by the FDA and isn’t proven to be effective. And to propigate this insanity even further:

On August 23, Butler County (Ohio) Common Pleas Judge J. Gregory Howard ordered West Chester Hospital, part of the University of Cincinnati network, to treat COVID-19 intensive care patient, Jeffrey Smith, 51, with 30 mg of ivermectin daily for three weeks. The drug had been prescribed by Dr. Fred Wagshul, an Ohio physician who is one of the founders of the ivermectin-crusading group Front-Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCCA). The hospital had refused to administer the anti-parasitic drug that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends against using for COVID-19 treatment or prevention. Dr. Leanne Chrisman-Khawam, a physician and professor at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, called the FLCCCA “snake oil salesmen” and criticized the evidence presented by the group supporting use of ivermectin against COVID-19. Fortunately, the ruling by Judge Howard only lasted 14 days, for another judge later reversed this decision that would have ordered the ivermectin treatment.

The American Medical Association, the American Pharmaceutical Association, and the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists have called for an immediate end to the use of ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19 outside clinical trials.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

According to the FDA, patients can identify bogus products by the following:

  • Personal “success” stories, such as the product “cured” diabetes or stopped COVID-19. Or, as I presented before, the product, Prevagen, which is promoted to provide “memory like an elephant!”
  • Quick fixes, such as “cured cancer in 30 days”
  • One product that cures many or every disease
  • “Miracle” cures
  • “All-natural” cures or treatments
  • Products that play into conspiracy theories (eg, Big Pharma, COVID-19 mis- or disinformation)

If you encounter such scam products, I would advise you to report the products to the FDA. You can also call 1-800-FDA-1088.

3 thoughts on “Common medical scams that should be on every one’s radar”

  1. I cringe every time I see the ad for prevagen, testimonial from people who have found it “extremely” helpful. Are they deluding themselves via some type of placebo effect or are they just paid shills?

    1. As far as I can tell, they are merely paid shills!
      The product has not been subject to credible research, and, moreover, the FDA has been after them since 2012 to stop the false promotions of this product. The FDA’s failure to do so is a reflection of the inadequacy of governmental rules that should allow them to clamp down on such fraudulent promotions. You have correctly identified those ads as “cringe worthy.”
      Best regards and congrats!
      M. Tavel, MD

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