Observations Medicine and the Media

What a new consumer health magazine doesn’t tell you

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6817 (Published 10 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6817
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

A new magazine, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, claims to help the public find safer, more effective treatments. Margaret McCartney takes a critical look at the October issue

It looks just like any other magazine on the shelves of the newsagent aimed at middle aged women: glossy, 100 pages, with a smiling, confident looking woman on the cover. What Doctors Don’t Tell You, a monthly magazine that launched in September 2012, claims to explain how to “discover treatments that are safer and more effective.”

The headlines don’t mention celebrity gossip but instead promise subjects such as “Cervical cancer alert: what every mother (and daughter) should know about the new jab,” “How I avoided a hysterectomy through diet,” and “Unsteady gran? It’s drugs that cause the falls, not old age.” The magazine has regular columns, such as “Pet’s corner” and “My medical horror story,” and a column in which a retired general practitioner can “speak freely about his unorthodox but highly successful approach to treating ‘the incurables.’”

But how fairly does What Doctors Don’t Tell You reflect the evidence? It raises valid concerns in an article about the influence of the drug industry on doctors’ decision making in the United States. Another article on falls in older people describes how “prescription drugs are a major cause of the common problems we usually put down to ageing.” But rather than presenting “what doctors don’t tell you,” the article quotes from Michael Oliver, the professor of cardiology who wrote a personal view on overtreatment of older people in the BMJ in 2009 that was reported widely in the lay press.1 Several points in the article reasonably relay the associated problems of polypharmacy in older people. However, the article also states, for example, that drugs such as propranolol and dipyridamole are “too dangerous for use in the elderly,” referencing a study published in JAMA in 1994.2 This study was based in the United States, where prescribing policy is different, and so may not relate directly to the UK population, and it focused on “potentially inappropriate” drugs identified through a cross sectional survey rather than on individual assessment of each prescription.

The editor of What Doctors Don’t Tell You, Lynne McTaggart, ran the magazine originally as a website and newsletter, which launched in 1990. She told me, “The reason my magazine exists is because modern medicine just isn’t working very well. That’s the bottom line. The American Medical Association has come out to say that correctly prescribed drugs is the third leading cause of death in America and that probably goes for all of the West.” She is clear that her publication, which she says has a circulation of 40 000, is for “intelligent people of any age who want to know more about what works and what doesn’t work in conventional and alternative medicine. They want to know more, to be able to control their own health. They don’t want to be told after the fact, when they’ve suffered a side effect, ‘Oh yeah, that had to do with medicine,’ because they are not getting enough information.”

In the October issue’s news section the article “Thyme is better for acne than creams” starts, “Thyme is more effective than prescription creams for treating acne . . .The herb outperformed pharmaceuticals in a series of laboratory tests, killing the actual bacteria that cause acne . . . Not only is thyme more effective, but it’s kinder on the skin too, say the researchers. Most pharmaceuticals cause a burning sensation and irritation to the skin, whereas thyme and other herbal preparations have none of these side effects.” The article references the Society for General Microbiology’s spring conference in Dublin this year. This research was reported through a press release; it was an in-vitro model; and the researchers did not compare side effects with current prescription creams.3

Another article says, “Army personnel with noise deafness and tinnitus are commonly deficient in B12, but enjoy an improvement in symptoms after taking B12 vitamins.” The study referred to contained 12 patients receiving vitamin B12 and was not a randomised controlled trial.4

The editorial on Gardasil, headed “Lock up your daughters,” warned that “your doctor and your daughter’s school nurse are not likely to tell you about the 100-plus American girls who suddenly died after receiving an HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine.” Although there are valid concerns about the long term efficacy of HPV, to suggest that it has led to death is alarmist and does not reflect or explain the evidence collated by the Food and Drug Administration.5 Informed choice has to be about fair information, not scaremongering; we should hardly wish for a repeat of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine debacle.

Although medical journals carry advertisements for drugs, the ones in this magazine are an extraordinary shrine to non-evidenced based medicine, such as “Comra therapy,” which says it can treat “allergies, arthritis, asthma, autoimmune . . . muscles, neurology, organs, osteoporosis, skin, stress strokes and many more.” It costs from £1600 (€2000; $2600) and combines “infrared laser with magnetic field, ultrasound and colour LEDs.” Or there is the “Q-Link Clear device,” which can “fight electronic stress” and combat “poor performance and fuzzy thinking.” Is McTaggart satisfied with the advertisements her magazine publishes? She said that she was “not completely happy with some of them” and wanted “some of them changed” but declined to tell me which or why.

It is right to criticise medicine, but the same standards must be applied to all interventions, “alternative” or not. We now realise how important it is to ensure that fair evidence, free of bias, is used in making medical decisions. There is no point in substituting bad medicine for bad science, and it is not clear from this magazine where the hierarchies of evidence stand, and the limitations and uncertainties that arise in research are not consistently explained. The magazine’s liability statement—“the publishers cannot accept any responsibility for any damage or harm caused by any treatment, advice or information contained in this publication”—should perhaps be better printed on the cover, in an unmissable font.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6817

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

References