While we have seen an uptick in the distribution of misleading medical advice as a result of the pandemic, medical misinformation is not a new phenomenon in the field of emergency medicine. In an age where misinformation runs rampant, it can be increasingly difficult to source your information from a reliable source. Several years before the pandemic, I treated a patient in his 70s that came into the emergency department (ED) complaining of shortness of breath. After some testing, we found that his oxygen levels were in the 70s. Curious as to why he did not come into the ED sooner, I sat down to listen to his story between his panting for air.
The patient had been seen in the ED for chest pain a few months prior. A chest X-Ray indicated the patient had a new large lung cancer. Following a consultation with his physician at the VA, the patient was told that his only options to treat the cancer were radiation and chemotherapy. Before starting treatment, the patient sought a second opinion from the Hoxsey Clinic in Tijuana, a well-known alternative treatment clinic, and a naturopath. The naturopath disregarded the recommendations of the VA physician and instead ‘treated’ the patient with herbs, supplements, and an IV of hydrogen peroxide – an incredibly dangerous treatment and can lead to the destruction of blood cells, air bubbles in the circulation that can go to the brain and other organs.
Following the hydrogen peroxide treatment, the patient noted that he got so sick that he thought he was dying. When he called his naturopath to see if this was a normal side-effect of the treatments, he was told that his recent illness was a sign that the cancer cells were dying and that he would be fine. By the time the patient returned to the ED, his shortness of breath was so severe that he could not walk. Upon further testing, we found that the cancer had completely filled his lungs, and the alternative treatments irreversibly damaged his body. Due to this weakened state, we knew that the patient’s body would not be able to tolerate any chemotherapy or radiation and helped him get placed into hospice care. When all was said and done, my patient and his wife spent over $50,000 out of pocket on alternative treatments that did nothing to treat his cancer.
Medical misinformation is not only costly – it can be deadly. As the dissemination of misinformation continues to rise, the trust between physicians and patients is declining. If this trend continues, we will see more tragedies like the one here. As physicians, we need to establish ourselves as a leading resource for patients when it comes to educating them on courses of treatment that will keep them safe and healthy. By communicating openly and transparently with our patients, we can begin to rebuild the trust that’s been lost.
Dr. Torree McGowan is an Air Force veteran and practicing emergency physician in central Oregon.