Medical compounds with questionable effectiveness were known as nostrums or patent medications, even though most were never actually patented. Some patent medications actually worked but had toxic/negative side effects, such as slow death from mercury poisoning when mercury was used treat syphilis or addiction from treating colicky infants with opium. After 100 people died from a drug tainted with an untested solvent in 1937 (known as the Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy), Franklin Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which increased regulation over medication, required pre-market testing of all new drugs, and banned false therapeutic claims in drug labeling.
These days, suspicious claims of supposed miracle medical cures still exist. The people most vulnerable to trying these treatments are those who are faced with an incurable disease that modern conventional medicine cannot effectively treat or those who have not responded to curable diseases via conventional medicine.
These supposed treatments can now be easily discovered with a quick internet search, but how are consumers supposed to evaluate their effectiveness and how should healthcare providers respond to patient questions about these treatments? Below I will offer some tips on how to do this by using a modern example: the claim that Alzheimer’s disease can be effectively treated or reversed by using coconut oil. This is based on the theory that coconut oil will provide the brain with an alternative source of energy (ketones) due to an impaired ability to use its usual energy source (glucose).
STEP 2: EVALUATE THE QUALITY OF PEER REVIEWED RESEARCH: Although peer reviewed research is generally higher quality than non-peer reviewed research, there are many peer reviewed articles than contain significant design flaws, limiting the conclusions that can be drawn. The best research evidence comes from studies in which patients were randomly assigned to treatment groups, in which neither the treater or patient are aware of the specific treatment (this is known as being double-blind), and in which one of the treatments was a placebo (a substance containing no actual medication). The less the study contains these features, the less confidence you should have in the results.
Suggested reading: A Brief History of Bad Medicine