Browsing Tag

Traditional + Alternative Medicine

Can Bleach, Turpentine or Miracle Mineral Solution Cure Childhood Ailments?

By February 16, 2016 4 Comments

Would you ever consider swallowing bleach or turpentine? What about giving yourself an enema with bleach? To most of us this sounds horrible, but a small group of well-meaning but terribly misguided parents is choosing to feed their children these toxic substances in hopes of curing everything from the common cold to autism.

While small amounts of bleach can get your white clothes white, and turpentine can strip paint and varnish off furniture, no adult or child should ever ingest either of these substances in any form. As a pediatrician and a parent I can’t imagine ever feeding my child or a patient bleach or turpentine. I’ve struggled to understand why any loving parent would ever feed them to their children.

What’s most concerning about this trend for me is that parents are doing this because they believe bleach or turpentine will cure their children.  In addition many parents mistake the signs of significant damage (chemical burns, shedding of the intestinal lining, lethargy etc…) as signs that the bleach and turpentine are effectively ridding their child’s body of ‘toxins’. In fact it’s just the opposite.

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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Disability + Disability Advocacy, Science 101 + Mythbusting

None of Us Are Above the Placebo Effect

By December 15, 2015 No Comments

This is Weber’s Vitamin E Cream.  I put this stuff on everything.  I use it on my lips, on dry skin, on minor cuts and abrasions, I use it instead of regular moisturizer on my hands and legs.  It’s only available in Canada and whenever I go home, I stock up, because I consider it a necessity.  I swear when my kids are grown and they’re reminiscing about all the weird stuff that mom used to do, Weber’s Vitamin E Cream will be at the top of the list.

Does it work better than other products on the market?  Probably not.

Is there some sort of magical ingredient?  Nope.  If you look at the ingredients, it’s essentially petroleum jelly and vitamin-E.

So why do I use it?  Because I think it works, even though there’s no evidence that it works any better or worse than anything else.  It is my placebo and I’m OK with that. 

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Categories: Faith + Beliefs, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Caring for Sick Kids: Know the Difference Between “Natural Remedy” Facts and Fallacies

By November 18, 2015 3 Comments

It’s hard to watch our kids suffer when they’re not feeling well. c/o M. Weinberg-Anderson

Taking care of an ill child is challenging. On one hand, a parent wants more than anything in the world to relieve their child’s discomfort, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to have concerns about the potential side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. It is also completely understandable that many well-meaning parents seek out remedies that are marketed as being “natural” because they believe that these types of remedies will be safer than conventional treatments. Unfortunately, many of these concerns are unfounded, since most so-called natural remedies are ineffective or even unsafe, as I have explained in my previous post.

Before I address a few specific bogus remedies for sick children here, I want to tackle a few equally bogus claims that are often raised during discussions of alternative approaches to health care. Whenever I question the safety or effectiveness of a “natural” remedy, I am invariably faced with one or more of the following rebuttals: natural means safer, natural means more effective, and finally, doctors only recommend drugs and surgery. None of these generalizations are remotely true, and here’s why:

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Newborns + Infants, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Toddlers + Preschoolers, Tweens + Teens

Should You Treat Your Child’s Cold or Flu With Traditional or Homeopathic Medications?

By September 29, 2015 4 Comments


We’ve entered that time of year when many of us try to stay indoors as much as possible, cringe at the mere sound of someone coughing, and stock up on hand sanitizer in attempts to ward off illness. Cold and flu season has begun and, as usual, our children are the most susceptible to these viruses.

As the father of two, I know that parents want to ensure that our kids are healthy and happy, it’s in our nature, so when our kids become ill, we want to fix it immediately. But are the cough and cold medications you find overflowing in the aisles of your pharmacy the best option for easing your child’s symptoms?

As a pharmacist I speak with parents all the time who grab a bottle of cold medicine off the shelf that makes the most promises of relief on the label. If the parents seek my advice I often tell them it would be wiser to put the bottle down and offer their kids comfort measures at home like warm soup, a humidifier, and lots of fluids instead. I know this seems counter-intuitive – I’m a pharmacist! Most people assume I see medication as the solution to every problem. Not so.

First, it’s important to note that over-the-counter cold and flu medications can’t cure or shorten the duration of those illnesses, they can only offer temporary symptom relief while the virus runs its course. The infection and symptoms will end when the child’s own immune system has won the battle.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Newborns + Infants, School-Aged Children, Toddlers + Preschoolers, Tweens + Teens

Symptom Relief from Your Grandmother’s Pantry

By September 23, 2015 No Comments


Image of a child with chicken pox via The CDC. This is not a picture of Leslie with the chicken pox, she sincerely hopes there are none.

Image of a child with chicken pox via The CDC. This is not a picture of Leslie with the chicken pox, she sincerely hopes there are none.

When I was 10 or 11 I caught the chicken pox from a family member. After age two, the severity of the chicken pox increases with the age of the person infected, so as a tween I was at the older end of the spectrum. And I had them HORRIBLY. I remember the pustules, blisters and ulcers being Under my eyelids, down my throat, in my mouth, it hurt to lay down, it hurt to sit, it hurt to stand, really existing hurt for a solid two weeks.  For what it’s worth I still carry the physical scars of the illness today and recently had to explain to my toddler what they were when he noticed them.

Jumping back 20 years ago I remember my mother (at her wit’s end from what I’m sure was an exhausting experience caring for me) called her mother and asked for advice on how to control my itching. Because, again, the sores were everywhere and I was in agony. My grandmother suggested a cool bath in oatmeal and baking soda. To this day I remember the feeling of getting into that bath. The relief! The cool water, the oatmeal, the baking soda it felt so much better.

Flash forward some 20 odd years later, I’m now a mother myself, to a son that had a nasty diaper rash. The kind of diaper rash that makes you wince when you look at it, and he was understandably not happy about it. As he cried in discomfort, almost instinctively I grabbed some raw oats and baking soda from the pantry, tossed them in a cool bath, and plunked him in. Shortly after, he calmed down and said, “it feels bedder mommy.”

Relieved that the remedy had worked for now a third generation, I had to wonder what made it work, and what other therapeutic treatments passed down through the generations actually do work.

To be clear, there’s no such thing as a magic cure – the treatments discussed below are just that: treatments. We’re talking about things that can alleviate symptoms, because magic cures? Well, those don’t exist, much as we’d like to hope. Also, before you try any of these treatments make sure you talk to your doctor first. As Julia and I say, don’t take medical advice from strangers on the internet, including us. Talk to your doctor.


My grandmother was right; oatmeal actually does soothe inflamed skin, but you need to use it in a specific way. It’s not enough just to toss some oats in the bath and expect your eczema to clear up. You can either purchase colloidal oatmeal (essentially finely ground oatmeal), make your own colloidal oatmeal at home by tossing the oats into a food processor, or strain regular oats (either using a strainer, sachet or sock) in the bath. What you want is for the bath water to turn milky beige, it’s that milky substance that will coat your skin soothing any dry or inflamed bits. If it looks like you’re sitting in a bath of watered-down oatmeal from mealtime, that would be not the way to use it.

Oatmeal naturally retains water and when that milky substance I mentioned coats your skin, it brings some water in with it. Most importantly oatmeal is high in Saponins (a mild natural cleanser) and avenanthramides, natural antihistimines which reduce inflammation.

Baking Soda:
Ah yes baking soda, AKA sodium bicarbonate. We all have a box or two of this laying around our houses likely either for cooking, deodorizing, but baking soda has been a go-to for relief for rashes, burns and insect bites for generations.  Here’s the really interesting thing I discovered while researching this post: nobody seems to know why it works.  Coming up empty on journal searches, I even turned to a PhD analytical chemist to ask if he knew why baking soda soothed minor dermatological irritations and even he shrugged.  His best guess is that it has to do with the alkalinity of baking soda having a neutralizing effect on the acidity of the irritation.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using it as a paste or an additive in a bath to soothe poison ivy and bee stings, but apparently no one knows how or why it works.

Cranberries + Cranberry Juice:
If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI) you know how painful and uncomfortable they are and cranberry juice is often cited as an at-home remedy for the dreaded UTI. It looks like there is some science behind using cranberries and cranberry juice to help alleviate the urgent and painful symptoms of a UTI while you wait for the antibiotics to start working, but in terms of curing UTIs, it seems cranberries don’t live up to the hype. But here’s where it gets interesting: if you suffer from recurrent UTIs, it looks like there is some evidence to support that cranberries and cranberry juice can help prevent them. The mechanism for how this happens isn’t quite clear, but researchers are working on discovering the relationship between cranberries and UTI prevention.

 Olive + Flaxseed Oil:
If you’re feeling a little constipated and struggling to go, it turns out that a table spoon of olive oil or flaxseed oil can help get things moving again, and quickly, especially if you don’t want to turn to stool softeners or laxatives. Flaxseed oil has a laxative effect, helping your digestive tract along, whereas olive oil, well, it “greases the way” for your stool on it’s way through your digestive tract. Just like with oatmeal and baking soda, using olive or flaxseed oil only offers temporary relief. If you’re regularly constipated, you need to talk to your doctor.

Prunes and Prune Juice:
Just about everyone’s grandmother had (or has) a bottle of prune juice in the fridge and usually it’s expired. As a kid I remember seeing this in both sets of grandparents’ houses and wondering “why would anyone ever drink this stuff?!” It turns out my grandparents were on to something. If you’re constipated (again with the poop) prunes and prune juice can not only soften stool but help your stool on it’s way out of your GI tract, making it easier to go. Prunes (aka, dried plums) are high in fiber, something your GI tract relies on to stay regular. Again, just like olive and flaxseed oil, prunes and prune juice will only temporarily relieve mild to moderate constipation.

So there you have it, just a few of the at-home treatments your grandmother was probably right about. If you’ve noticed, none of them are cures, but simply relieve symptoms or offer temporary relief for minor issues. As always, you should consult with a licensed health care provider before trying any home remedy your grandmother has recommended, or have found online (including from us)!

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

Do Dogs and Cats Pose a Health Risk to Infants and Children?

By August 17, 2015 1 Comment

This post is in response to a question from reader, Melissa. 


In the age of helicopter parents, it’s practically expected that moms and dads will move mountains, part seas and do pretty much anything humanly possible to protect their little ones. Preventing common illnesses like colds, flus, and infections is no exception, so it makes sense that some parents are wary around potential “germ hubs” like animals or other children. However, when it comes to household pets, shielding your child from dirt and dander from dogs and cats isn’t doing him or her any favors.

While it is true that dogs and cats are generally considered dirtier than humans because of their exposure to unsanitary floors and the great outdoors, their presence actually helps young children stay healthier during childhood and develop fewer allergies as adults. A large body of research suggests that this protective effect may be due to early exposure to the various bacteria carried by dogs and cats. Exposing young children to these bacteria early in life helps prime and train their immune systems early so that they’re stronger and better able to resist illness and allergies down the road.

To determine the correlation between family pets and childhood illness, Finnish researchers asked a group of parents to record health information about their children during their first year of life. The researchers found that compared to kids in pet-free homes, kids in homes with dogs had fewer respiratory tract infections, were less likely to develop ear infections, and needed fewer treatments of antibiotics. The study’s lead scientist explained that this might be because of exposure to dirt brought inside by dogs – especially because they found that children saw the greatest health benefit where the family dogs spent a good deal of time outside.

This positive health effect could also be because of the microbiome hypothesis, which states that early-life exposure to a variety of good microbes improves the immune system, by altering the microbes in the intestine to protect against allergies and infections.

Living with pets can also help lessen the chance of developing an allergy later on, but only if the pet is living with the child during the first year of life. In one study, researchers performed allergy tests on a group of 18-year-olds and compared the results with information about the child’s early home life. They found that babies who grew up in homes with a cat were about half as likely to develop a cat allergy, as compared to those in homes without cats. In addition, boys who grew up with a dog were half as vulnerable to developing dog allergies. Again, this is because the pet dander and bacteria are thought to accustom the body to different allergens, building up a natural immunity.

And it doesn’t stop there – children with more pets often experienced even better immunity. Of the kids surveyed in a similar allergy study, those who had grown up with two or more pets had up to a 77% reduction of risk. They were also less likely to develop allergies to dust mites, short ragweed, and blue grass (no, not the music).

There are plenty of other studies with similar results (which you can find complied here in an article on One found that children who were raised on farms with animals were less likely to develop allergies. Another found that children ages 5-11 in three schools in England and Scotland had fewer sick days if they had pets at home. A survey of 11,000 Australians, Chinese and Germans found that pet owners made up to 20% fewer visits to the doctor per year than non-pet owners.

Couple these health benefits with the plethora of emotional and social benefits, and it’s no mystery why more and more families welcome furry four-leggers into their homes.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the trend. Certain children are more prone to illness due to immune system weaknesses or other variable circumstances, and parents of these children should always follow their doctor’s advice about how to manage interactions with pets, other children, and even adults. In addition, children who have already developed allergies to dogs or cats should not be exposed to fur and dander if it’s avoidable.

For most young children, being around a pet does not pose any additional risks to their health. As I’ve said here, when introduced early in life, a pet can actually strengthen a children’s immune systems, keep them healthier, and lower their chances of developing allergies in the future. This information certainly doesn’t mean that you should get a cat or dog simply to improve your child’s immunity or lower the risk of allergies, but it’s just another reason to show man’s best friend a little extra love.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Newborns + Infants, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Toddlers + Preschoolers

The Chemistry of Sunscreen: Organic vs. Non-Organic, a Marketing Misnomer

By August 12, 2015 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter to the opening of an outdoor portion of our local children’s museum.  As a service, the museum provided sunscreen for all who attended.  Not just any sunscreen, but natural, “chemical-free” sunscreen.  Several women near me were chatting about how nice it was that the museum provided “chemical-free” sunscreen.

The chemist in me rolled my eyes.  Why?  Because everything is made of “chemicals.”  So, it is a bit of a misnomer to call this sunscreen “chemical-free.”

The words “contains organic ingredients” also highlight the difference between language used in marketing versus the scientific community as a whole.  The word “organic” has many meanings but is often associated with living (or once-alive) organisms.  In chemistry, “organic” simply means chemical compounds associated with living species, specifically, a carbon backbone. Thus in chemistry, organic simply means “containing carbon,” while in the marketing world, “organic” often means “limited pesticides.”

Now that that misnomer has been debunked, what you need to know is that in the sunscreen world, two labels are used to describe it: “mineral” and “chemical” sunscreen. “Mineral” sunscreens typically refer to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are chemical compounds labeled “inorganic” because they do not contain carbon atoms in their overall structure.  Conversely, “chemical” sunscreens are made up of carbon-containing molecules that absorb light, and because they contain carbon, chemists refer to them as “organic.”

Below is the chemical structure for oxybenzone.  When an organic molecule has a lot of double bonds like you see below, it’s good at absorbing UV light, the same light that we are trying to block using sunscreen (absorbing in this case means the same as blocking). This is what makes oxybenzone a good sunscreen.


(Drawn using Chemdoodle,

The green sunscreen shown above is the one given to us by the children’s museum, and it contains zinc oxide (ZnO), and titanium dioxide (TiO2). These are also chemicals, just a different type of chemical.  ZnO and TiO2 are not carbon-containing molecules (“organic”), but rather inorganic UV blockers.  Many sunscreen brands refer to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as “mineral” sunscreens.  This term evokes thoughts of gathering rocks and grinding them up and plastering the mix on your body.  But this actually is a bit of marketing language.  Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are also chemicals.  In fact, they’re chemicals not typically even found in nature, but rather created or synthesized in the lab by oxidizing zinc and titanium metal.

(Drawn using Chemdoodle,

(Drawn using Chemdoodle,

So what are the pros and cons of each type of sunscreen?

Pros and cons of oxybenzone sunscreen: Oxybenzone is a clear sunscreen, meaning that it is relatively easy to apply and does not have a white appearance. Most importantly, oxybenzone absorbs UV light and protects your skin from UV damage, which makes it a good sunscreen.  The drawbacks of the UV-absorbing organic compounds include a higher rate of allergic reactions in users and the possibility of the compound being disruptive to hormones such as estrogen. Although studies show that oxybenzone  does bind to estrogen, panic associated with this finding is unfounded.  In 2004,  a study that found that while humans absorb oxybenzone, there was not enough evidence to suggest that the absorption of oxybenzone affected hormone levels.  In my professional opinion, the benefit of oxybenzone protecting your skin from harmful UV rays outweighs the small risk that oxybenzone may be a hormone disruptor.

Pros and cons of Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide sunscreen: Zinc oxide and titanium oxide sunscreens are also both very effective at blocking UV light from your skin through a combination of scattering and absorbing the UV light. However, the biggest drawback of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is their cosmetic appearance.  Both of these compounds are white and produce an opaque appearance on the skin.  Even with advances of making ZnO and TiO2 particles very small (i.e. to make them more translucent), the opaqueness is still an issue for those who prefer invisible protection.

I personally use both types of sunscreen for myself and my children, so my recommendation?  Use sunscreen.  Any type that you can find or afford.  It would be much better to use any type of sunscreen than none at all – just make sure that your children are protected to prevent sunburns.




Burnett, M. E. and Wang, S. Q. (2011), Current sunscreen controversies: a critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 27: 58–67.

[2] Schauder, S.,  Ippen, H. (1997) Contact and photocontact sensitivity to sunscreens. Review of a 15 year experience and of the literature. Contact Dermatitis, 37, 221–232

[3] Janjua, N. R., Mogensen, B., Andersson, A., Jørgen, H. P., Henriksen, M., Skakkebæk, N.,E., & Wulf, H. C. (2004). Systemic absorption of the sunscreens benzophenone-3, octyl-methoxycinnamate, and 3-(4-methyl-benzylidene) camphor after whole-body topical application and reproductive hormone levels in humans. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 123(1), 57-61.



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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

Is Your Pediatrician on Big Pharma’s Payroll?

By August 4, 2015 4 Comments
Kid and Doc

Pediatricians are some of the lowest paid physicians

Have you ever wondered how your pediatrician gets paid? It’s probably not something you spend a ton of time thinking about, however, there are some people who claim that every time a doctor writes a prescription or delivers a vaccine that they are paid by a pharmaceutical company to do so. Well, I am a pediatrician and I’m here to set the record straight.

Pediatrics isn’t a lucrative specialty

Before we can talk about how much your doctor makes and where that money comes from, we need to talk about what it cost them to become a doctor in the first place, because it has a big impact on how many of you may view pediatricians and their relationship to profit in general.

On average, 4 years of medical school costs over $200,000 and the average medical student graduates with $180,000 in student loan debt. After graduation, prospective pediatricians train in a 3-year residency program (pediatric specialty training) with an average salary during these years of about $55,000 per year, depending on location. Even with a 20-year loan repayment plan, the monthly payment on the loan would be $1,374, or more than half of a resident’s take-home salary. For this reason many pediatric residents put off paying their loans until they have their first job. While a resident doesn’t have to make payments during those three years of deferment, their loans still collect interest. That makes the $180,000 in student loans compound to a total of approximately $217,430 when the former-resident-turned-doctor gets their first job, and begins making payments on them.

Why is this relevant?

Next to family and general practice, pediatrics are the lowest paid medical specialty a clinician could choose to pursue. Pediatricians graduate with a massive amount of student debt and their salary makes it difficult for them to pay it off. The typical starting salary for a pediatrician may be $130,000-150,000 depending on their location. Therefore, their monthly student loan repayment for 10 years would be 30% of their monthly income, or 15% over 20 years.

If pediatricians were in it for the money, they would have chosen much more lucrative specialties. Those who choose pediatrics are not doing it for the money but are doing it because they generally love to care for children and their families. That takes gets us full circle to the point of how physicians, pediatricians specifically, get paid.

Doctors are paid by their employers, who are paid by insurance companies, not pharmaceutical companies

There are many options for career paths once out of their 3-year residency, and each of them will have an impact on how much money a physician will take home. For example, one can choose to work for a hospital, a large multi-specialty group, or a small practice, and each of these have a different baseline for overhead costs, all which come before the pediatrician’s paycheck. As the process goes, doctors see patients, and based on the time and complexity of the care that they provide, they submit a corresponding bill for that care to a patient’s insurance company. The insurance company then pays the doctor’s employer for an accepted cost of care, usually negotiated between the two sides. From that amount, once overhead costs and staff are paid, the employer, whether it is a hospital or small practice, then pays the doctor. None of that process includes income from a pharmaceutical company.

It’s actually an infrequent occurrence to have money flow directly from a pharmaceutical company to a physician. Scenarios where this may occur is one where a physician may decide to be an expert speaker for a pharmaceutical company and be paid for speaking engagements. Alternately, some physicians choose to do research with a pharmaceutical company, and that position would also likely be paid. However, this can not be stated enough, the vast majority of pediatricians seeing patients on a day-to-day basis do not receive direct compensation by any drug company.

Every conspiracy starts somewhere – and this one is linked to the “Big Pharma” myth

So where is this conspiracy theory coming from?

Distrust of the medical establishment and fear of modern medicine (vaccines first and foremost) is too large a topic to discuss here. However, I believe this is how it started. Accusing a doctor of being paid by “Big Pharma” is an attack on the doctor when no other substantive evidence is available to support an allegation or claim of bias. For example, if a pediatrician defends the safety and efficacy of vaccines to someone who is anti-vaccine, they may be accused of being in the pockets of the companies that produce or distribute the vaccines. These claims are not supported by scientific fact or logic (i.e. fiscally responsible behavior), since purchasing and storing vaccines is such an expensive undertaking that many small practices lose money by offering them at all.

Concerned? Ethics check: does your physician sell medications direct?

Concerned? Ethics check: does your physician sell medications direct?

Of course, in the past, there was an indirect incentive for physicians to recommend certain medications from pharmaceutical companies. Prior to appropriate legislative action, physicians were offered elaborate vacations and dinners by certain pharmaceutical companies in the hopes that these doctors would recommend a certain drug over another. However, this has dramatically changed in the past several years through legislation. It is now illegal to try to influence physicians with gifts, including those once-famous pens so many of us might remember in our doctors’ offices years ago. In my company, we rarely see representatives from pharmaceutical companies and we have a policy against free lunches. Many residency programs have the same policy, and many hospitals and clinics ban solicitations of that nature entirely.

Doctors choose the most appropriate medicine for an illness or injury given the circumstances

Making decisions about which medication to use for a given illness is complicated. Antibiotic recommendations are made based on what is most certain to kill the bacteria most likely to be the cause of an infection. For other conditions, scientists develop medicines based upon the known cause of a condition. Yes, this typically gets done at a pharmaceutical company, but that is because they have the money to do so. In fact, anyone who is independently wealthy and wants to hire scientists to develop medications is free to do so!  Once a medication has been developed and studied, it doesn’t simply enter the free market – the company must go through a rigorous FDA approval process. Even after several tiers of studies are completed and FDA approval is set, doctors still rely on large panels of experts to look at all of the available evidence to decide if a medication should be recommended or not (some of this is what we reference as “peer reviewed” studies).

So when a doctor is examining a patient and needs to treat a condition, he/she considers the patient’s needs and ability to comply with their recommendations, the latest medical guidelines for that condition, and then considers the patient’s medication options, including a treatments’s effectiveness, its side effect profile and most importantly, insurance coverage for that treatment. Frequently, in pediatrics the generic version of a medication is what is typically covered. Therefore, the expensive brand name medications advertised by pharmaceutical companies on TV and on the internet are rarely prescribed as they’re much less frequently covered or accessible to these patients.

On a final note, if you are worried about a doctor profiting off of prescribed treatments, you may want to consider how you’re being provided those treatments. Is it coming from a pharmacy, in the hospital or at your local store? You have little to nothing to be concerned about in terms of doctor bias. However, i your doctor selling directly to you? If they are, you may want to dig deeper. This could be a red flag. Who profits if you see an alternate practitioner who sells you herbs, supplements or homeopathic remedies, which are not proven to be safe or effective? Probably that practitioner. That’s what we call a conflict of interest in the care of a patient, and there is an ethical code that MDs and DOs are held to that do not violate that extra layer of protection.

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting