Are Evil People Influencing Your Patients?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


June 24, 2015

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Hi. I am Art Caplan, from the New York University Langone Medical Center Division of Medical Ethics in New York City.

If you were to draw up a list of who belongs in Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell, you might put in some of your enemies. You might put in certain athletes that play for teams you don't like. But I have another candidate for you: Belle Gibson.

Belle, an Australian woman somewhere in her 20s (she doesn't even tell the truth about that), had a very active website where she claimed that she had beaten multiple forms of cancer by eating right and living healthy. She had an app you could download to tell you how to do this; she had a cookbook that told you what to eat; and she had hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites who took her very seriously.

But Belle did not have cancer and she was full of malarkey. Her diets were not based on anything of value. It is not even clear that she herself followed her diets. In fact, she was a complete fraud. The reason I say she belongs in the Seventh Circle of Hell is that she led many people to believe they could beat cancer by eating what she said to eat. There is no evidence that you can get rid of cancer through your diet. Certainly, she deceived people into spending a lot of money on her books and dietary advice, and she persuaded a lot of people that the way to fight disease is to breathe healthy air and live a healthy lifestyle, which is not a bad thing to tell patients, but it is not good to tell patients that this will fight cancer.

She appears at a time when we are struggling to decide what to do about misinformation on the Internet. Many others, such as the Food Babe, who has been touting all kinds of healthy diet stuff, and even the much maligned Dr. Oz, who has been selling quick-fix solutions to obesity, are telling people that there are magic beans and super-duper extracts that can solve all manner of health problems.

Time to Point Patients to Reputable Internet Advice

It is time for doctors to get into this with their patients. You need to ask them what they are looking at on social media. Find out how they have changed their lifestyles and whether they are using supplements or taking things you should know about. Then you should challenge them by noting that, more and more, we are finding out that what looks good and easy and simple is not, and those who use social media and the Internet to tout these "cures" to make a buck are not where you should go for trusted information.

Physicians need to know where to send patients for reliable information. Know the websites, find out about social media so that you can say, "Here is a vetted source from the American Cancer Society or the American Medical Association (or other expert professional groups) to help you deal with diseases." Do not leave your patients hanging, relying on whatever it is that pops up in the top 10 Google searches.

The Internet is a powerful tool. We are not going to censor it. We are not going to shut it down. But I believe that medicine has to adapt to and address it. The case of Belle Gibson shows that if we do not do that, a lot of harm may come of it.

I am Art Caplan, from the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.


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