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Scam or Real: 5 Steps to Evaluating Therapies and Therapeutic Remedies

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  • Article summary:

    A cure for many of the conditions that afflict our children does not yet exist. As a result, many individuals and companies are leaping into the breach with a wide array of products and approaches. Some of these may have some value; many others, unfortunately, only have value to the people selling them.

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Scam or Real: 5 Steps to Evaluating Therapies and Therapeutic Remedies

As I scroll through my Facebook Feed, I see ads almost every day touting new therapies that “cure” or dramatically improve all sorts of conditions. There is the one that is supposedly a breakthrough for autism. There is another that says stem cells will cure cerebral palsy and a bunch of other conditions. And, of course, there is the “helpful” friend or relative who knows nothing about your child’s condition or modern medicine and still claims that this food, that essential oil, or that supplement will cure your child.

The hard part is that there are some really promising therapies and treatments out there that actually do work. For example, early studies are showing that medical marijuana really does seem to help seizures, and certain intensive therapy programs work extremely well for some children. But how can you figure out what is real and what is a scam? When should you try something and when should you not? How do you even get more information?

This article will present a series of steps that will help you to evaluate a therapy or therapeutic remedy and determine whether or not it is something you should pursue.

Step 1: Look for scam signs
Start by taking a look at the website or written materials you have about the product or service. While evaluating them, remember that ultimately therapies and therapeutic remedies are businesses designed to make money, and they may use every marketing trick in the book to try to sway you.

Be on the lookout for these sneaky marketing tricks. Companies may try to influence you by making your child’s condition seem much more horrible than it is. They may blame parents or regular doctors for failing to help your child. Or they may simply feed on your fears. For example, many companies targeting parents of children with special needs prey on parents’ desires to cure their child, get rid of their conditions, or otherwise “fix” children. Vulnerable parents are often willing to do almost anything to help their children, and easily fall prey to these tactics.

There are many other signs that a therapy product or service may be a scam. Some of the most common warning signs of scams are listed below.

Signs of Scams
• Words such as Cure, Breakthrough, Miracle, Secret, or Fix are used
• Medical claims are listed but without evidence from peer-reviewed medical journals
• The parent, doctor, or medical system is blamed for the child’s lack of progress or failure to get better
• Medical “experts” who may not actually have medical expertise are cited
• There is no medical cover for a product or service
• The product/service claims to be useful for a long list of conditions or diseases
• Treatment occurs outside the country you live in, usually in a less medically sophisticated country with lax regulations
• Therapy or product is not FDA-approved or approved by another relevant safety organization
• The product or service supposedly will improve a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms
• Medical or scientific jargon is used repeatedly without cause or explanation
• Words like Natural, Healthy, Purify, or phrases like Removes Toxins are included
• The sole evidence of the product/service working is patient testimonials

Let’s take the example of a 'Magnetic Mug marketed for R350.' 

The advertisement states:

Between the stainless steel exterior and porcelain interior of this mug lies a material that magnetizes hot or cold liquids. Why? Because magnetizing water, the basis of any liquid, creates space between its molecules, adding alkalinity to water that has become acidic. Alkaline water is more readily absorbed by the body. 

As your tissues increase their hydration levels, your body flushes out toxins more easily.

Sounds good, right? 
It turns out, however, that what is stated is scientifically implausible. You can’t create space between molecules without a massive magnetic force, and magnets don’t affect pH, which has to do with a liquid’s concentration of hydrogen ions. The key to identifying the scam here is noting the scientific jargon that is used without evidence, and the use of scammy terms like “flushes out toxins.”

Step 2: Do your research
The next thing you need to do is find out more about the therapy or a therapeutic remedy. While the website for the item or service may give you general information, remember it is a marketing ploy. You need truly independent information.

First, try to find out if any medical research studies have been done on the product or service. You can use the free medical research hub, PubMed, to search for abstracts and articles about a wide range of topics. If you do find studies, try your best to evaluate the quality of the studies. For example, a double-blind study is much more valid than a study that is based on patient reports. A meta-analysis or review study is also helpful, since these types of analyses typically report the results of all the relevant studies on a topic. Also, take a look at the journal the study was published in. Highly respected, peer-reviewed journals tend to publish higher quality studies. Finally, look at who funded the study. If the funder of the study would benefit from the results, you should be highly suspect of the study. For example, a study on peanut allergies funded by the peanut industry probably won’t be accurate.

Next, look for approval of the item or service by relevant approval boards. Medications and medical devices should be FDA-approved. Therapists, doctors, and dietitians should hold appropriate degrees, as well as board certification and state licensure in most cases. 

After that, search the web for consumer complaints against the item or service. Finally, ask people with medical backgrounds you trust what their opinions are on the therapy. Talking to doctors, nurses, or other therapists you know and trust can help you decide if a therapy is right for your child.

Step 3: Do no harm

Once you have decided that a service or product might not be a total scam, you next have to weigh the benefits against the potential negative consequences of a treatment. The first rule of medicine is that you should do no harm. For example, trying a homeopathic medicine is not likely to harm your child since the medication is so dilute, though there have been some recalls because these items accidentally contained way to much of the listed ingredients.

On the other hand, certain medicines that may seem harmless, like essential oils or ayurvedic medicines, may actually be poisonous to children. Many ayurvedic medicines have high heavy metal levels, including lead, or may contain ingredients that can provoke seizures. Essential oils taken orally often cause problems in children who do not swallow well, who accidentally inhale the oil into their lungs. Excessive doses of oils on the skin may also cause poisoning.

Treatments with the potential for extreme side effects should be avoided completely. Common programs with extremely negative potential side effects include those that starve children in order to wean them off feeding tubes, unusual psychological approaches, or therapies that require restraint. Any proposed treatment that uses biological products, such as stem cells, feces, urine, or blood, should be avoided unless provided in a RSA-based hospital.

Step 4: Evaluate the financial cost

The higher the cost of a therapy that is not otherwise covered by your Medical aid, the greater the likelihood it is a scam. Parents must truly weigh the financial cost of a therapy with the potential benefit. For example, stem cell treatments given in foreign countries are extremely expensive and have shown few positive results. You are much better off financially investing your money in traditional therapies, like physical and occupational therapies.

This is not to say that all uncovered therapies are scams. As well all know, insurance often try not to cover some of the more expensive therapies, even when they are proven to work. Some highly specialized therapies, such as physical therapists who focus on respiratory conditions, or speech therapists who work with augmentative devices, may not be covered. You definitely need to do your research!

Step 5: Trust your gut

Finally, the most important thing you can do is trust your gut. If you get that hinky feeling—even a tiny bit—about a product or service, trust that instinct and stay far away.

It can also be helpful to take a close look at your motivations for pursuing a product or service. Obviously, we all want to help our children, but sometimes we go after expensive and unproven therapies because we are still having trouble coping with the reality of our children’s situations. In that case, make sure you are really pursuing the therapy to help your child, and not just because you cannot accept your child’s special needs.

Susan Agrawal

Susan Agrawal, the editor of Complex Child, is the parent of Karuna, a child with many special medical needs. Susan holds a humanities PhD and used to serve on the faculty of a top research university in the Chicago area.  She currently cares for Karuna and her typically developing children Sameer and Neena.



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