Health: Misleading online advertisements a danger to women, doctors fear


image Caption, Former breast surgeon Liz O'Riordan said she didn't know what kind of misinformation her patients faced online

Doctors and campaigners have said women are being targeted and exploited as NHS services struggle to meet demand, leading to a rise in online alternative treatments.

Some alternative treatments may conflict with prescribed medications or mask more frightening symptoms.

Liz O'Riordan, a former breast surgeon who later had breast cancer three times, said she had “no idea” what her patients were viewing online before she became ill.

She said: “The moment I was diagnosed with cancer, people online were telling me to use iodine, or detox and cut out sugar, or do a keto diet – did I try this drug, or that drug?

  • Author, jenny rees
  • Role, BBC Wales health correspondent
video caption, Women warned that alternative treatments could put health at risk

“I didn't realize how much misinformation there was out there. It could be like conspiracy theories and cults — and cancer is really scary.”

She said she understands the appeal of glowing testimonials for online products with promises of cure at great cost, so she's tried to use her experience to bridge the gap.

He said some of the herbs and supplements advertised may interact with cancer treatments such as tamoxifen.

“I used to have 10 minutes to tell someone they had cancer and what their treatment would be.

“It's not enough – we don't have enough time for medical treatment, let alone survival issues.”

He said the internet has “exploded” with targeted ads and testimonials on social media that “could be written by AI”.

image Source, Liz O'Riordan

image Caption, Liz O'Riordan had to give up her job as a breast surgeon at the age of 43 after her own breast cancer relapsed for the third time.

Ms O'Riordan is one of the speakers at the Everywoman Festival in Cardiff, now in its second year, which was started by colorectal surgeon Julie Cornish.

Ms Cornish said she had seen a small number of patients in her clinic in recent years who had paid for alternative treatments from unqualified practitioners.

He said some people had cancers that could have been treated successfully if they were detected early and that certain “red flag” symptoms could not be ignored.

“Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of the key areas,” he said.

“My concern is that patients are self-medicating, but it is a diagnosis of exclusion and you have to first make sure you have ruled out an underlying cancer or condition.

“Once you've received a diagnosis of IBS, some complementary treatments may be helpful for some people, but some people advertise 'successful' treatments that are expensive and don't necessarily have the evidence to back them up.” There should also be evidence for this.”

He said he has seen an increase in expensive probiotics and claims of “100% treatment success” with supplements, but “these particular vitamin complexes can be somewhat misleading”.

image Caption, Julie Cornish has founded the Everywoman Festival to improve knowledge about women's health

She founded the Everywoman Festival, a series of talks and workshops on a range of health-related issues to educate women about common health issues and reduce associated stigma.

Online health misinformation is not limited to cancer patients or a certain age group.

Molly Fenton, 21, founded Love Your Period when she was 16, and said she's seen girls as young as eight recommending supplements to “balance hormones” on social media.

“I'll hold my hand up and say that I'm one of those people who will search for something on TikTok before I search on Google, but it's very difficult to check what someone is putting in a video,” she said.

“You can get some really good content, but then you can also get some really harmful or bad content and it's really difficult to understand the difference between the two because there are no tools in place to allow that to happen.

image Caption, Molly Fenton said she's seen girls as young as eight asking for advice about hormone-balancing treatments on social media

“Women's health is the best marketing opportunity right now,” she said.

“It's a very vulnerable space because there's a huge gap in the market because of lack of education and lack of knowledge.”

Ms Fenton said she was regularly approached to endorse products on social media, but never did so because of concerns over credibility.

“If it has a pink box, they will inevitably try to sell it to you.”

image Source, Jenny Smith Photography

image Caption, Dianne Danzebrink said the menopause landscape has changed significantly in the decade she has been campaigning for reform

Dianne Danzebrink, founder of Menopause Support, said that conversation about the condition has increased, but it has also become a “very competitive, commercial landscape.”

She said, “I've seen a lot of headlines in trade publications about the menopause bandwagon and the value of the menopause space. So it's clear that brands and marketers are very aware of this space.”

“There has been a huge expansion of social media around menopause, and it can be very positive and give people their light-bulb moment and recognize what is happening to them.

“But it's also really important to know that there can be a lot of misinformation out there, too.”

Ms Danzebrink said the health risks from these products may be low – although some products may have contraindications with prescribed medications – but there are other issues.

“I remember one person came to talk to me about her menopause experience and she brought 12 different supplements that she was taking, which had a considerable monthly cost.

“I asked which ones worked and her response was, 'I don't know, but I'm too scared not to take them.'

Through a campaign called Make Menopause Matter, she has long called for mandatory training for health care practitioners, which she said would help reduce wait times and the need to seek out unproven alternatives.

“At present the demand for NHS services cannot be met, and as a result we have seen an increase in what I would call associated services. We have seen an increase in products and an uptake of private menopause clinics,” she said.

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