Donkey resting

Endangered by the press

I was telling you a while ago about the explosion of health-related writing done by people that have NOTHING in common with the healthcare field, neither by training, nor by experience. Here is what JUST happened to me yesterday…

Screening the market for healthcare services demand, I found myself reading this services request posted on a well-known freelancing market place (which, by the way, I believe is a great market place and has nothing to do with the flaws of the facts below):

“I need to make sure that my newspaper ad for a memory enhancing dietary supplement is FDA compliant. The ad is approx. 1,000 words long (incl the FDA disclosure at end)”

Marketplace job post deidentified

As I do provide consulting pharmacy services, this seemed to fall well within my training and expertise. So, I replied back that I am happy to help and can take a look at the ad at any time. I don’t know about you, but the impression I got was that the producer or manufacturer of the respective dietary supplement is about to advertise a dietary supplement in a newspaper and they wanted to make sure that the wording is free of what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls unsubstantiated claims about a drug. I knew that I could do that easily enough, thus I messaged the person saying that I would be glad to take a look.

Another kind of press – the scampress!

I heard back from them next day asking for a 1,000 word dietary supplement ad write-up to prove my skills. I laughed really hard! Of course I told them I was a pharmacist – nonetheless I still had to prove myself! I sent instead a 1,500 word document with a summary of the FDA and FTC regulations along with a few classic examples of how a dietary supplement ad should look like in order to be FDA/FTC compliant. At the same time, I asked to be sent a confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA) to sign ahead of time and get that part out of the way. I do that all the time. For the uninitiated, when you review health claims for a supplement or drug commercial ad, you must review the documentation supporting the respective claims. Sometimes in such a process you come across information that may be proprietary, so a CDA is necessary to ensure confidentiality on many plans. The person messaged me back right away:

Nope, don’t need one. It’s a newspaper ad, so it’s going to be public anyway

In that moment I knew that I was not talking to the manufacturer. However, it was also apparent to me that I passed the interview! On the bright side, at least that one I was talking to thought that I was worthy enough to continue the discussion 😀 The person asked me to take a look over the ad and provide an estimate about how much it would cost to “fix it”. I clicked on it to read it and I was instantly shocked. It looked like this, except for the text that I blurred myself:

BlurredArticle

The title was not any close to a newspaper commercial ad of a dietary supplement. It had a “by” name that proudly displayed “Freelance Health Reporter” underneath. It went on to post several bold statements like “Science Attacks Memory Loss”, “The Studies behind the Science”, “An Unparalleled Memory Enhancer” and “Perks Up Tired, Sluggish Brains”, and culminated with the classic “Try it 100% risk free” and the famous asterisk legend stating *THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN EVALUATED BY THE FDA. THESE PRODUCTS ARE NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, CURE, OR PREVENT ANY DISEASE. RESULTS MAY VARY. There were also several pictures including the one you see of the 44th President Barack Obama, a watermarked iStock photo from the internet with a woman talking to a female health provider (wearing a white coat) in the front of a shelf of medications implying a patient-pharmacist discussion, and another watermarked iStock photo with what looked like two scientists looking at something resembling brain scans.

It continued with a pharmacist testimony – Emily P. (there was a full name, but I am not going to provide it here) – who was claimed to be a “professor, and scientific researcher and writer‘. I looked her up. After all, one can look up any licensed healthcare provider! In most cases, if that healthcare provider is a “professor, researcher, and writer”, there is no way that person will go without a LinkedIn profile. Guess what I found on LinkedIn? A “pharmacy technician” profile with ZERO connections (a glaring sign that the profile was just created recently or has no activity). I checked the respective state for a pharmacist with that first and last name: nothing came out. No pharmacist with that name! I hope you don’t mind then if I call Emily P. a “fabricated pharmacist”.

Pharmacist blur

The article (or commercial ad, whatever you want to call it) was saying about the apparently fabricated pharmacist that “[she] was thrilled with the results of the research” and “wishes [she] had a dime for every time someone asked <Do you have anything that can improve my memory?>”. The reporter continued quoting who I thought was a fabricated pharmacist: “This non-prescription memory pill is to an aging, sluggish brain what a breath of fresh air is to your lungs”. And it went further “With this simple, drug-free formula, I finally have something I can recommend that is safe and effective. And you don’t need a prescription either!”. By this point in my reading I was already OUT OF AIR IN MY LUNGS!

There was another testimonial by a Courtney B. The credentials of this person was simply that she “has to pass continuing education requirements every two years in her profession“. She was quoted saying “When I was younger, it was so easy to read the materials and take the tests with no problem. But as I’ve gotten older, I found that my recall wasn’t what it used to be”. Apparently after taking the memory pill for a short time, Courtney B. said “I feel like I did in my 20’s! I don’t have to read and re-read the study materials over and over, and I can go into these exams feeling confident that I will pass, no problem”. This Courtney B–thing seemed to be in all likelihood another kind of fabrication. Why do I say that? Because I have to take continuing education (CE). As do several hundred thousands of healthcare professionals, including hundreds, maybe thousands, that I personally know as colleagues and friends. For anyone that ever acquired a healthcare license or certificate of any kind, passing the CE requirement is far from a brain or memory challenge. One needs no sky-rocketing memory to pass a CE test. The purpose of the test is more for the one providing the continuing education to prove that you are now (after sitting in the class) informed about the matter, thereby justifying themselves getting paid for the education service. Many times you can go ahead and re-take the test until you pass it. Zero chances that one like Courtney B. will go ahead to take memory supplements in order to pass her CE requirements! Com’on! …I mean anybody with a healthcare degree is not worried about their memory for passing CE tests. Yeah, if you write healthcare-related articles and are trying to following a narrative you have heard of or read about, then you might assume that is how a pharmacist talks or how CE testing works. It all starts making sense…

But the best was yet to come! The company mentioned as being the manufacturer, the supplement named, and the 1-800 number were all FAKE. How do I know? I looked them up! I am quite good at finding real medication manufacturers and I am licensed to find out everything about drugs, dietary supplements, herbals…basically anything that you can find with a purported health related purpose. That’s my job and I do it well, VERY WELL! At that point I wrote back to the person requesting my help by sharing the fact that I did a quick check and these were my concerns. If they were being paid by the manufacturer to write this article, they themselves were legally responsible to the FTC for any claims written in the article. I told them that I need real info if they wanted me to offer real help.

In a matter of minutes, they replied with a new drug name, new manufacturer and a new label for me to review. This was shock number 3…, 4… or 5…? I’d lost count! This new product was registered, the manufacturer did exist, but it did not – DAMN! – have anything in common with the article that had been sent to me!!! The one I was in contact with added: “as I said, I’m just looking to be not NON-compliant. If you think that nothing in the article is compliant, then you won’t feel in integrity editing it“. Naturally, I did not take that job. I will not take any job like this one!

Oh, I forgot to say that they told me they will put Emily’s entire info in there because I commented that one – like me – may want to see if that was a real pharmacist (I can’t wait to see if this actually done)! But I couldn’t stop thinking about how flooded the internet is and how easily deceived the consumers are. I can only hope that no newspaper will accept that article, or add, for publication. I may search periodically in the following months to see if it gets published anywhere. Anything like this may be a serious public safety issue…health reporters like this one must get paid well enough to end-up with such an extent of fabrication. What do YOU think? Are you ok with this? Most journalists do a great job, however…this isn’t news reporting. This is getting paid for false claims!

I hope you found this as interesting as I found it! The story is deidentified for obvious reasons, although the reporter did not find it necessary for the two of us to sign a CDA. Yes, I will surf the internet in the coming weeks to months to see if that article surfaces anywhere! For those of you curious about what are the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission for supplements advertising, here is a link to Dietary Supplements: An Advertising Guide for Industry on ftc.gov – a website protecting America’s consumers.

Stay in good health until next time! Comment on this page or in the forum or contact me with any questions related to what you read about drugs, supplements, or herbals. Go ahead and save a life!

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Dr. Alice

I teach people how drugs work, when they are needed, and why. My expertise as a pharmacist and researcher allows me to determine whether taking or not taking a drug will pose any risk given all current circumstances that apply at this moment. Many times we don't know unless we try, but other many times walking the extra mile pays off giving in return more wonderful moments and more to give to others.

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