The patients shown on the Netflix documentary series “Afflicted” are desperate. They are suffering greatly, confused, and searching for ‘help’ continuously. Enter the diverse group of individuals stepping up to answer the call. At best, there are trained medical experts and physicians willing to try unproven treatments for patients who are unable to find relief. These providers acknowledge that validation is the key ingredient to successful treatment of the chronically ill patients in the documentary. One brave soul even admits that his positive attitude and optimism aid in the “placebo effect” that ultimately helps his patients recover. Some of these providers may even believe that their off-the-wall treatments are medically valid, despite the lack of evidence or even sound rationale for why they would be effective. Example: laser treated “ozone” that is inhaled through special syringes, which is essentially air. This is the best case scenario.
Further down the road of irresponsibility and exploitation are the largely anonymous “supplement” peddlers. Patients on the documentary joke several times that they don’t even know what the mystery substance that they’re ingesting is, or even what benefit it’s supposed to have. “I just take it because my naturalist told me it will help me.” This mind-boggling faith in self-appointed experts and their expensive magic potions is both ponderous and disturbing. As one skeptical friend gently asserts in one episode, “If you still feel terrible, how do you know that this is working…..?” The answer, of course, is that they are ‘synergistic’, a brilliant method of convincing desperate people that they have to take all of the supplements, or they will be ineffective and their condition will get even worse. Are all herbal remedies and supplements a sham? Of course not. There are undoubtedly botanical treatments that are effective but haven’t been widely studied. But there’s a problem: the bar for supplements is so low that the makers only have to prove that they aren’t acutely poisonous. By this criteria, cigarettes could be marketed as a botanical treatment. Vague suggestions of improved circulation, lymphatic drainage, decreased inflammation, and increased energy are neither supported by evidence nor even have a proposed rationale. These same effects could more reliably be produced by walking regularly outside. The validity of these substances comes from the secret knowledge that ‘your doctor doesn’t want you to know about them (gasp)’. If it opposes mainstream medicine, it must be good.
Side Note: As a psychiatrist I am located squarely on the fringe of mainstream medicine to begin with, and I advocate more than most psychiatrists for non-medication based treatments. These include counseling, meditation/yoga, exercise, nutrition, massage, acupuncture, TMS, medical cannabis, light therapy for depression, and in cases of verified deficiencies and genetic abnormalities even specific vitamins and supplements. Given that most of these alternative treatments are free and all are supported by scientific evidence, I admit to being highly skeptical of mystery substances and bizarre treatments that are both expensive and not supported by any evidence at all. I have treated a patient who unknowingly took several supplements with the same ingredients who developed permanent neurological deficits from vitamin toxicity. For example.
The final stop on the road to taking advantage of desperate people in pain are the players who are proposing wildly expensive treatments for ailments diagnosed through sophisticated looking alternative tech devices. This appearance of legitimacy and veneer of pseudo-science sickens me. In the documentary it is clear that the patients respond immediately to someone listening to them and treating them with interest and respect (sounds suspiciously like psychotherapy, no?). This approach is then peppered with diagnostic gadgets that appeal to people who wait in line for the new IPhone, convoluted descriptions of their physical ailments that validates their beliefs (‘I was right, it is electromagnetic sensitity in my dental fillings!’), and culminating with the finale: ‘The condition is worse than we thought, we caught it just in time, and lucky for you I am the only person who specializes in this rare and special disease. You are a rare and special person. The treatment costs $20K.’ Some of these last group are actually physicians. Well intentioned or no, we should know better. The hubris in believing that everyone else in medicine is wrong and you’re right is combined with the convenient omission of the potential for emotional distress to be the cause of vague and shifting symptoms. Emotional pain leading to physical symptoms is NOT rare and special. It is estimated that 1 out of 3 emergency room patients (not counting bleeding wounds and broken limbs) in th U.S. has no organic basis for their symptoms. 1 out of 3. These people are not fakers, it is not all in their heads. They are experiencing real pain and require real, evidence-based psychiatric care.
Or, you know, it could be a rare 1 out of 10 million disease. That may or may not even exist. And requires unverified $20K treatments. Please help….