Note: this post was originally on Forbes in my regular column, but was pulled because it was more about healthcare than about marketing (my beat). So I am posting it here exactly as it appeared on Forbes.
I am a marketing fanatic, not a health fanatic. But I am a little more aware of health issues now that I’ve hit 50. As such, I was reading a fascinating book called, The Best Of All Worlds - A Family Doctor's Path to Integrative Medicine, by a family doctor in Massachusetts, Dr. Andrew Lenhardt. The book helps readers understand the real and often unexpected health effects of modern health products and provides alternative ways to treat those same health issues. But the book inadvertently appealed to my marketing side because it might possibly turn the medicine market upside down.
According to Dr. Lenhardt, many health products designed to solve a particular health problem actually make the problem worse. Further, the manufacturers of these health products pitch "temporary relief," which in many cases is factually true, but not without long-term and detrimental (and self-serving to the companies) consequences.
A few examples of a health solution exacerbating a health problem:
- Antacids - acid blockers - can create the long-term need for more acid blockers because they interfere the natural process of stomach acid breaking down food.
- Chapped lip-sticks teach your body to not worry about lubricating your lips making you more likely to need it.
- Commercially available coughs suppressants do not outperform honey in trials. Honey!
- OTC headache pills can cause a rebound effect increasing the frequency and intensity of headaches.
- Artificial sweeteners trick the brain and alter the metabolism in such a way that causes weight gain.
- Statins, designed to manage cardiovascular disease, can lead to muscle pain, which leads to less physical activity and then, you guessed it, more heart problems.
There are more in Dr. Lenhardt's book, but you get the idea. As I was reading, I was reminded of the addictive qualities of cigarettes. Sell people on "cool" and hook them with the nicotine. I was full of questions, so I reached out to Dr. Lenhardt directly. He kindly answered them all via email.
The answers paint a dark picture of these "quick fixes" and have significant implications to the larger healthcare system.
Burns: First, why did you write this book?
Lenhardt: Simply put, I wrote the book because there was something important I had to say. During my time in medicine, I have had a good sense of what mainstream medicine does well and what it does not do well. There is what I will call in an upcoming blog an "epidemic pandemic." Over the past 25 years or more we have seen an increasing rate of chronic illness including more allergies, eczema, headaches, asthma, autoimmune conditions, fatigue, chronic pain, hormone imbalances, bowel problems and the fragmented modern medical machine is not equipped to figure out and correct these problems. The system is good at labeling and managing but not at preventing, fixing and reversing. The burden on practitioners is growing and causing an economic crisis.
Burns: Do you think there's a real problem with some medical products that claim to do one thing for us but end up doing the opposite?
Lenhardt: Yes. The poster child might be acid blockers that create the long-term need for more acid blockers because they interfere with the natural process of stomach acid breaking down food so it can clear the stomach and not back up. We are increasingly conditioned for the quick fix and this can undermine long-term health. Chemotherapy destroys many fast growing cells in the body systematically decimating a vulnerable individual that most desperately needs an optimized immune system, clear mind and good intestinal lining for adequate absorption of the nutrients needed to support the body in its battle against cancer cells. The most common side effect of statins is muscle pain and this often leads to less physical activity that can cause an increase in overall cardiovascular risk.
Burns: Can you help us understand how products like these are allowed to market themselves? Why doesn't the FDA prohibit them?
Lenhardt: Marketing seems to focus on the quick, easy solution and this appeals to the American consumer. People are increasingly seeking those options that are the most convenient and would rather take a pill than do the harder work of correction and reversal. I don't have much of an expectation for the FDA to do what's best for Americans in terms of their health. The American medical system from the Flexner Report (published in 1910) to now has evolved in such a way that the most profitable options like pharmaceuticals are at the forefront. The FDA, NIH and other governmental agencies are influenced by lobbyists and businesses is part of this system, as I describe in my blog The Medical Industrial Complex. If we had a system that was dedicated to the best long-term approaches for health and wellness, it would look nothing like the system we have today.
Burns: How do you personally feel about these products being allowed on the marketplace?
Lenhardt: I have little expectation that the federal government and regulations would be utilized to protect the consumer from drugs and direct-to-consumer products that may have adverse effects or ultimately be counterproductive. Businesses, of course, exist primarily to make a profit and any benefits to consumers would be a side benefit that would be most relevant as part of a marketing plan to increase future sales.
Burns: What are some of the remedies you've discovered in your work that work just as well as pharmaceuticals or these over the counter products?
- Hypertension: yoga, meditation, respirate biofeedback device, magnesium, coenzyme Q10, others
- Acid reflux: apple cider vinegar with mother, digestive enzymes, DGL licorice, mineral supplements, others
- Insomnia: magnesium (especially magnesium glycinate), Sleep Remedy supplement, melatonin
- Strep throat: raw garlic with honey and orange oil in a blender
- Cough: honey superior to all OTC cough medications
- Headaches: butterbur, magnesium, hydration, avoidance of glutamate/MSG/processed foods
- Colds/URIs: andrographis, umckaloba
- Coronary disease/coronary plaque: hydration, whole foods, vitamin C
Burns: What, in general, is it about our bodies and medicine that these companies hope we don't find out?
Lenhardt: This would best be reflected in the 7 principles of naturopathy. Our body has incredible capacity for healing and much of what we should focus on would help facilitate these internal processes. We have stomach acid for many important reasons. Our immune system eliminates precancerous and cancerous cells by the tens of thousands or more every day of our life. We have that mechanism in place. Natural options, vitamins, minerals, lifestyle changes that are less toxic and similarly effective are not generally profitable. All of the most basic functions within cells and tissues require certain vitamins and minerals to function properly.
Burns: What does all this mean for our healthcare system?
Lenhardt: The current system is going to implode on itself. A shift is ongoing in American health where people are accepting lower and lower qualities of life and this is putting a burden on the system with more visits, more treatments, more costs with people having higher copays, higher deductibles. The more complicated the bureaucracy, the more people that are required to manage it. The more layers of people, the more complicated and inefficient it becomes and the downward spiral continues. This is not sustainable. People are more and more frustrated with the system and the "dark times" are only going to get worse.
Conclusion: more heartburn.
I am not a doctor, I am a marketer. But Dr. Lenhardt makes a compelling case for consumers getting swindled on a number of health-product fronts. Money - and making more of it - can bend a company's perceptions of reality, where "temporary relief" is enough to march ahead with that marketing plan.
I for one will now get heartburn just seeing another Tums ad. And I admit I would think twice before accepting an ideation assignment at my agency from one of these brands. Too many questions.
What are the moral implications of Dr. Lenhardt's findings? By successfully marketing these products are we really hurting consumers? What, if anything, should the FDA be doing about products like these? Is Dr. Lenhardt just an whacky extremist or is he ushering in the future of medicine?
I like to think that marketing and advertising can be a force of good in the world. But only if the product it's selling is not exacerbating the problem it is supposed to solve.
Dr. Andrew Lenhardt Bio:
Andrew Lenhardt, MD, is a board-certified family physician and the former Medical Director of Lahey Hamilton. He has served as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Tufts Medical School for over 10 years. He is the author of the book The Best of All Worlds – A Family Doctor’s Path to Integrative Medicine. His goal is to use the best mainstream approaches while also incorporating the best options from other disciplines of wellness into his daily practice. This integrative approach is seen at Well Life in Peabody Mass where traditional doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners work with alternative practitioners in a collaborative model. Dr. Lenhardt will transition his practice to Well Life starting March 1, 2017.
Dr. Lenhardt’s primary goal is to target the root causes of illness and provide patients with the tools to achieve optimal health. With a focus on prevention rather than treatment, he is able to incorporate the principles of functional medicine, naturopathy, ancestral health, nutrition and lifestyle in caring for his patients. Protocols are in place to help prevent and reverse health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, chronic fatigue, dementia, osteoporosis and others. Research is ongoing and a variety of topics are covered at his blog.
Dr. Lenhardt is a member of American Academy of Family Physician (AAFP), the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), and the Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine (AARM).