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By Dr. Daniel J. Alpert

NEW YORK, 7 JULY 2009 - As a practicing physician, it has become apparent to me that a large percentage of patients rely on mass media outlets and the Internet as their main source of medical information. Paid programming, websites and radio shows hosted by alternative practitioners dominate the air waves when it comes to the dispersal of medical information. Typically, a specific product, usually a vitamin or some other "natural" substance is relentlessly promoted with grandiose claims ranging from the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease to the treatment of joint pains, depression and an assortment of gastrointestinal symptoms.

Interestingly enough, these products are often not subject to FDA approval, and therefore are not scrutinized by the rigorous investigation of an objective scientific body. It is this same process that physicians, in concert with their patients, should depend upon to help make decisions about medical treatment. In the end, the motives of infomercials are transparent: ultimately it is all about profit. Most medical paid programming is designed to sell a product or promote a procedure without the benefit of true scientific review. Without question, these individuals are our modern day charlatans.

Now here comes the dilemma. How do physicians at large compete with slick advertising and sometimes blatant misinformation that is promulgated over public airwaves? Does the constitutional protection of freedom of speech apply equally to medical issues? At the very least, there should be a higher standard with regard to truth in medical advertising. There should be a burden to scientifically substantiate all claims with accepted methodology and data analysis.

Additionally, physicians, the AMA and other major medical institutions need to actively engage the American public and compete with the disingenuous motives of some Internet sites and infomercials for the release of accurate information. There is an ethical responsibility that the medical community has besides providing optimal research, sophisticated technology and treatment advances. It needs to educate the public in a clear and consistent manner. If it doesn't, others with dubious goals will fill that vacuum. Unfortunately, that process has started and is accelerating at an alarming rate..

Daniel J. Alpert, M.D. practices Gastroenterology and Internal Medicine in New York. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at New York University Medical Center.

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