Victim Case Reports

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

The number of people harmed by quackery-related activities is unknown. Most such harm is not publicly reported because the victims are either too confused or too embarrassed to step forward. As historian James Harvey Young, Ph.D., noted in The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America:

Failure seldom diminishes patient loyalty. When regulatory agencies seek to prosecute quacks, the agencies have a difficult task getting hapless patients to testify in court. Partly this results from the desire to avoid public exposure as a dupe; but often this objection to testifying rests on an inability to realize that deception has taken place. Many quacks do such a good job of exuding sincerity that their explanations seem all too plausible. Even patients faced with death believe in the "kindly" person who says the special remedy would have worked if treatment had only begun a little sooner.

To illustrate quackery's dangers, this web site will post reports of victims whose stories have become public—either through their direct efforts or through civil suits or criminal prosecutions that have come to our attention. It takes great courage for victims (or their survivors) to admit that they or their loved one made a serious error.

Even when a suit is filed, there may be little or no publicity. The news media often decide that it would be unfair to the defendant to publicize the case until a jury verdict has been rendered. The attorneys instruct their clients not to discuss their case with anyone. Plaintiffs' attorneys fear that a judge might conclude that publicity interfered with the defendant's right to a fair trial. Defendants' attorneys want to minimize publicity that could damage the reputations of their clients. Both sides may also fear that loose talk might hurt their case in other ways. The majority of meritorious cases are settled out of court years later with an agreement not to disclose the terms of the settlement and, in some cases, the details of the case. Such secrecy agreements may prevent the media from learning about the settlement and may make it impossible for the media to get sufficient detail to consider it newsworthy.

Individual Case Reports

Multiple Case Reports

Many people ask why Quackwatch doesn't post case reports about people who die from "medical quackery," which they define as any form of improperly delivered mainstream care (malpractice). Our focus is on fraud and quackery. Malpractice is the failure to meet mainstream standards of care. Fraud is deliberate misrepresentation. Quackery, as we define it, involves the promotion of methods that are unsubstantiated and lack a scientifically plausible rationale. Although some overlap exists, most cases of malpractice involve negligence rather than fraud or the promotion of bogus methods.

What You Can Do

Individual cases indicate that great harm is being done, but don't indicate how many people are being harmed. Former National Council Against Health Fraud president William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., has suggested developing a quackery reporting system patterned after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's system in which doctors report cases of communicable disease. This would enable us to keep track of what is being promoted, where the "hot spots" are, and what legal and educational efforts are needed for an effective response.

In the mid-1980s, the American Dietetic Association asked its members to report cases of people harmed by inappropriate nutrition advice from bogus "nutritionists," health-food store operators, and others. Between 1986 and 1990, the association received more than 500 such reports. Unfortunately, the system contained no mechanism to make the data useful for research or public education. Although the dietitians submitting the reports knew the identity of the victims, the reports contained no identifying information, and no attempt was made to seek the victim's permission to permit publication or further inquiry.

If you have been victimized and would like Quackwatch to report your experience, please contact us. We are also interested in reports from people who have been smart enough to spot a scam and avoid it.

This article was revised on September 4, 2014.