The one doctor in four talks back
TV-commercial “doctors” are closer to medicine men than medical men, an eminent Canadian physician says. Here is why the three doctors out of four who recommend those pills, pain-killers and cure-alls are seldom right and sometimes dangerous
Dr. Alton Goldbloom
I AM THE FOURTH DOCTOR. Who are the other three? Well, just listen to your radio or watch your TV and you will soon find out. Day in and day out, you hear commercials blare forth that “three out of four doctors” recommend a particular cereal for your health, a certain medicine for your nerves, a pill for your headache, a tonic for your anemia and a mysterious preparation for your split personality.
It is almost always “three out of four doctors” who recommend such and such; three anonymous doctors who have made clinical tests in hospitals that are nameless and who have, as a result, come up with enthusiastic recommendations for the advertised products.
The truth, if it must be known, is that there are no three doctors out of four, or nine out of ten or ninety-nine out of a hundred. When they say three doctors out of four, see how far you will get when you try to find out who they are. When they say “hospital-tested” you have a right to ask which hospital; but you will never find out. You may receive a reply that says, noncommittally, “Our product is
made of the purest ingredients.” If you are too nosy you will get no reply at all. I should like to ask if the three out of four are doctors of medicine, graduates of accredited medical schools. Well, let us look at the health foods and medicines they recommend.
The long list of cereals recommended for their health-giving minerals, proteins and vitamins are just good foods. All cereals contain proteins, all except those too highly refined contain some vitamins, and all have minerals, some natural and some added. But listen carefully for the catch phrase. The cereal taken with milk will help supplement your daily protein need. Who needs three out of four doctors to recommend cereal with milk because it is good for you, and why rupture the population's eardrums in shouting something everybody knew all the time? You do have a bit of intelligence I am sure. So, eat foods because you like them and they don’t upset your digestion. A constant search for “health-giving foods” and foods that are “good for you" makes food faddists and crackpots. Don't listen to and don't quote medical authority, in the ordinary matter of eating, if you are an ordinary healthy person with an ordinary
good digestion. Never mind the doctors, either the fourth or the other three.
Eating leads us directly into the subject of vitamins. Millions of dollars are spent to encourage the consumption of extra vitamins in the form of pills, medicines and enriched foods and beverages. Consider some of the commercials: “This drink is high in vitamin C. It stays high in vitamins even after the container is opened, day after day, glass after glass. Give your family the vitamin bloom of health.” Another advertisement goes, “Because active young minds and muscles need extra nutrition, there’s a healthy helping of B vitamins, iron and calcium in our bread. ... It’s the go-ahead bread for people on the go. Each fresh slice is a slice of life.”
I think it’s fair to ask how many extra vitamins, in the form of pills or food preparations, the average, healthy person needs? From my years of experience as a physician, I’d say very few people these days lack vitamins. The danger of vitamin shortage is practically non-existent in most homes. Most people more than meet their vitamin needs by eating enough eggs, milk, cheese, butter, meat, fish,
and root and leafy vegetables. All the vitamins they'll ever need are in these foods. Taking any more is a total waste because extra vitamins don’t do you more good. They do what they have to do, and the amount present in a varied diet is quite adequate. If you are in good health and you do feel stronger in ten days (or your money back), it is all in your mind. Yet this false belief causes us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the illusory hope that we will have more pep, fewer colds, stronger muscles, greater endurance and curlier hair. How pleasant it is to eat your food and enjoy it without thought of what is good or bad for you, or whether you are getting enough of this or that vitamin or mineral.
I don’t want to leave the subject of vitamins without warning that over-consumption can be a hazard to health. I've seen many cases of hypervitaminosis, or, to put it more simply, vitamin poisoning. The over-conscientious mother who learns that vitamins are good for her children often reasons that if a little bit is good, then a lot must be even better. I once examined the child of one such mother who
was being given 100.000 units of vitamin A per day —two hundred times the normal requirement. He was a very sick boy and, even after I explained the reason for the child’s fatigue and listlessness, the mother appeared skeptical.
The language of the commercial usually over-simplifies the problem and, hence, is misleading. The matter of anemia and iron deficiency is a case in point. You’ve probably heard the following advertisement: “Are you tired before the day begins? . . . Chances are you may be suffering from the grey sickness. The grey sickness means that your blood may be iron-poor, so you feel weak, nervous, tired . . . . The grey sickness responds quickly to our ironized preparation. It builds strength fast. Yes . in just seven days you can feel your own self again. Just look at Mary now, with energy to spare for exciting evenings even after a hard day’s work.” (Another manufacturer employs the term "tired blood” instead of “grey sickness.” Neither condition is listed in medical dictionaries.) The vendors of these nostrums for iron-deficiency anemia prove their good intentions by offering to return your money if
you don’t feel healthy again within a week or ten days.
What is the truth about iron-deficiency anemia? In the first place, the average layman can’t say whether he is—or is not—suffering from a dearth of iron in his system. This is a finding that can be made only by a doctor, after a careful physical examination supplemented by laboratory tests. Even if the doctor does find that you are suffering from an iron deficiency, his remedies will restore you to health only very gradually. I’m sure it can’t be done within a week or ten days, and your doctor won't give you a money-back guarantee.
The fundamental error in advertising remedies for anemia is that there are many forms of anemia. Some are caused by cancer or other chronic illnesses. In these cases, you are endangering your life by attempting to diagnose and treat yourself. For the economy-minded, I should add that if you don't feel better after ten days your chances of getting your money back are practically nil. The manufacturer will ask you to prove that you did have irondeficiency anemia because,
CONTINUED ON PAGE 53
Continued from page 27
The one doctor in four talks back
after all. his product was recommended for that and nothing else.
Thousands of gallons of iron-deficiency medicine are sold each year in this country. One reason is that the symptoms they claim to relieve — tiredness, listlessness, depression—are common to many illnesses, both minor and major. Another and more subtle reason is that iron has long been the symbol of strength. To the man or woman concerned about sexual potency, a medicine chock full of iron has an appeal.
The advertisers of nostrums have evidently gone rummaging in the attic of long-forgotten and discarded remedies. A familiar product to TV viewers is a “greaseless, stainless rub that banishes aches and pains by its soothing, healing deep heat.“ The deep-heat part of the claim is sheer nonsense. If you have a pain in your shoulder or back and want the comforting effects of heat, there’s nothing better — or more economical — than plain heat. A hot bath or an electric pad is more effective than any chemical preparation.
Some liniments and ointments are lauded and glorified because they “redden the skin." Before your very eyes, you can see them in action, driving out the pain! Don't be misled. We've had these so-called remedies for centuries. They're called rubifacients. The worst of those was “fly blister." This was cantharides, an extract from the ground-up bodies of a Spanish fly. The idea goes back to ancient Egypt where the beetle kantharos was worshipped for its medicinal properties. It was still in use when I was a student half a century ago. Applied to the skin it raised a blister so cruel that you could forget your pains. This was in wide use in those days. Also in wide use were camphorated oil. oil of wintergreen, mustard oil and a number of other evil-smelling oils with which you were supposed to rub yourself. They went out when aspirin came in.
Today we find that several smelly concoctions are being revived and endowed with miraculous healing properties. The same old remedies were useless in the old days and they're still useless. What have suddenly made them desirable in the public mind are the convincing animated cartoons used by the advertisers. An idiotic little manikin spouts pseudo-scientific facts that befuddle the consumer. There is the diagram of the painful back, made more realistic by little devils driving spikes into the affected area. There is the dissolve into a live, smiling, muscular he-man stripped to the waist, tensing his Herculean muscles to demonstrate the rapid relief he got from a backache — one he did not have in the first place — merely by rubbing a little “Purple Magic" into the affected area. They’re all nonsense.
Many of these preparations claim to bring relief from the pains of arthritis and rheumatism. A huckster shouts at you from the screen, "Don't let rheumatism and arthritis take some of the joy out of your life. Just watch this!" A smelly goo is rubbed on the painfully
“Doctors know most headaches start here,” it says. But they don’t know
crippled hands of a patient and, lo and behold, she’s playing the piano. “Only an hour ago,” says the pitchman, triumphantly, “these hands were in pain. Relief starts within thirty seconds.”
Would that things worked as simply. As every doctor will tell you, arthritis and rheumatism are serious, complicated diseases and the medical profession is under no illusions about the difficulty of treating them. We doctors are the first to admit that we have no adequate method of treatment. Even a drug as powerful as cortisone fails to give us the results we desire. And even when we get partly beneficial results, they don’t come as quickly or as completely as the picture on the TV screen suggests. What’s more, relief is only temporary. It’s a pity that the public is persuaded to waste so much money on preparations for rheumatism and arthritis.
Years ago, too, we used to put a drop of oil of eucalyptus or oil of peppermint on the pillow of a coughing child. It was quite useless and quite harmless unless the child got his fingers on the stuff and rubbed his eyes; then there was real trouble. Now I see these long forgotten and discarded remedies blatantly advertised as giving quick relief to the child because of “congestion.” Congestion of what? Evidently, the more pungent the preparation is, the more effective it is. One product is guaranteed to contain “menthol, camphor and other medicinally active ingredients.” The touching scene that accompanies this information shows a child tossing in bed, a smiling mother holding up the vaporizer that will “give hours of relief." A few seconds later, the mother tiptoes out of the room of her already calmed and sleeping child. How gullible can we be?
At least half a dozen cough remedies are being pushed at the public via the airwaves. A typical spiel goes, “Is your child bothered by night cough? Well, here’s how he can get restful, healing sleep. . . . Brand X is the sure, natural ■way to relieve a child’s cough, fast." Obviously, this appeal is directed at tired, worried parents kept awake at night by their children’s coughing. But parents should keep this in mind: there is no efficient cough medicine in existence. And it’s a lucky thing too. Anybody unable to cough when he had to would soon drown in his own secretions. And by the way. what’s “nature’s way” or "the sure, natural way" of healing? Most doctors would be grateful if the medicine merchants would supply details. One thing I'm sure of: if you use medicine, that is certainly not nature’s way.
For imaginative fiction and lively graphics, the advertisements for headache cures are probably unsurpassed. A simple drawing of a head appears on the screen, with an arrow pointing to a spot near the top. “Doctors know most headaches start right here,” says the voice. Another manufacturer portrays a head that is being pierced and pounded to the accompaniment of "What’s the gieatest cause of headache? It’s tension, TENSION, TENSION. When things go wrong, tension can build up, up. Suddenly you’ve got a miserable headache.”
This kind of advertising may sell headache pills but it’s not telling the whole truth. You can’t generalize about headaches. It's true that some headaches may be caused by tension. On the other hand, the cause may be a gastric upset or even a brain tumor. Headaches, like fever, are a symptom and no simple, general explanation about them can pos-
sibly be cither helpful or accurate. However, I must say this particular form of TV graphic art is exciting, convincing and easy to follow.
One of the more enterprising headache-pill entrepreneurs proclaims to the world that his product contains “not one but three ingredients” that kill pain and furthermore, “three out of four doctors recommend these ingredients.” There’s nothing dishonest about this claim; it's just that the manufacturer is kidding the public into believing he’s selling them something special. I’m reminded of the drug company that once marketed a product for the public with the boast, “This preparation contains absolutely no glucose.” Glucose, of course, is a harmless sugar. The public was unaware of it and the product sold nicely until the hoax was revealed.
So it is with the headache pill with the three ingredients, which are aspirin, phenacetin, and caffeine. To my knowledge, a pill made up of these three ingredients has been in existence for at least fifty years and perhaps longer. All doctors, not only three out of four, have used this combination regularly. It’s a traditionally good mixture for some pains, for headaches and fever. Again, I’m the fourth doctor—because I do recommend these drugs, but not under the trade name.
Another product that the advertiser boasts is “used with complete confidence by many doctors” is a certain laxative, described as “natural-acting.” I have no argument with the product itself because the principal ingredient is phenolphthalein. It would be no exaggeration to say that for years it has been used not by “many doctors" but by all doctors, although not under the brand name. The danger of promoting any laxative is that it will be used indiscriminately. A laxative has symbolic value. To the person suffering discomfort, regardless of the cause, what could make more sense than eliminating or expurgating something that he suspects may be doing him harm? But frequent use of even a mild laxative can irritate the intestines. Advertising claims to the contrary, the only thing that’s really close to “natural action” is natural action itself.
But why go on? It should be noted that Canadian radio and television arc not given to the extravagant and in-
discriminate advertising of drugs for selfmedication. Our neighbors to the south are much more lax, and since the greatest part of our population lives close to the border we get the spillover of nationally advertised U.S. remedies.
Ask yourself if you really believe that psoriasis can be cured by “a startling and new scientific discovery”? Why have we ignorant, reactionary doctors not heard of this boon? And if we have, why are we holding it from our patients? If eczema can be relieved in a week, acne banished, creaking joints lubricated—these are all advertising claims — why doesn’t your physician act promptly?
The answer, of course, is that such claims are misleading or false. Remember that nothing makes a doctor happier than to see his patient restored to normal health. He’ll use every safe, scientific method of treatment to attain this end. A doctor loves to cure. He doesn't always succeed but he does what he can with the equipment at his disposal; whatever brains and judgment God has given him, and whatever is available through the research of scientists in various fields. Latent hostility to the medical professio:: is the hostility that any person may develop toward a benefactor and falling for nostrums is but an expression of distrust. If it is a choice between selfmedication and relying on a qualified physician, you are better off with the latter.
There are all kinds of doctors. A famous British lady “doctor” who was for years regarded as an authority on birth control and on foods was a doctor of geology. Perhaps she was one of the three recommending doctors. Remember that ethical practising doctors of medicine don't recommend anything on a three-out-of-four basis. They recommend what is necessary and useful in each particular case. They do not lend themselves to surveys, but rely on the results of the careful scientific research that emanates from our great universit.es. Above all they do not deal in secrets. The three doctors may recommend a soap because it is the only soap that contains X-345. And X-345 may be an antiseptic of some sort, known and used by doctors under its real name, but they have no interest in mystic names or mystic numbers. ★