Feeling the heat

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The next time your doctor uses the term “idiopathic,” tell him or her to stop beating around the bush.

Because all they’re saying is “we doctors don’t have a clue what’s causing your problem.”

Usually, medical terms are not meant to dazzle. They are designed to be clear and specific. You might say you have a “stomach flu.” What you really have is some form of viral gastroenteritis.

But medical terms can be misleading, especially if they’re used to obfuscate rather than impart useful information.

This week, CBC-TV’s Amy Stoodly led a penetrating investigation into a local clinic that was using thermography to screen for breast cancer. Essentially, it’s using an infrared camera to generate those multicoloured images that indicate varying surface temperature.

As Stoodly and her national CBC counterparts reported, thermographic breast screening is considered to be a crock. The network’s investigation resulted in Health Canada issuing a public statement and sending warnings to clinics that were offering this unauthorized service.

Stoodly sent an undercover “patient” into the local clinic. The patient received test results dripping with serious sounding terms: “hyperthermic vascular patterns,” “acute cysts,” “severe fibrocystic changes” and “lymphatic congestion.” All are essentially non-critical findings derived from the colourful heat-o-grams.

It’s reminiscent of so many other shams. A few years ago, TV screens were awash in advertisements for a magical bracelet called the Q-Ray. We were told it had miraculous properties, including pain relief.

In 2008, CBC’s “Marketplace” looked into the product and discovered the company had essentially been kicked out of the U.S. market by the Federal Trade Commission.

The U.S. judge, whose ruling resulted in about $12 million in refunds to duped customers, did not mince words about terminology used to explain the bracelet’s powers.

"(F)or the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet … all statements about how the product works — Q-Rays, ionization, enhancing the flow of bio-energy, and the like — are blather," wrote Frank Easterbrook.

There’s an interesting parallel between the thermography story and the Q-Ray bracelet: in both cases, Health Canada seems to have been behind the game.

As CBC News reported, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was already sending warning letters last year to thermographers making unfounded claims in that country. Health Canada had taken no such action until the news story hit the airwaves this week.

With people paying hard-earned cash for useless tests — and being scared into thinking they’re developing a deadly disease — perhaps Canadian health authorities should have been a little quicker off the mark.

Organizations: CBC News, Health Canada, Q-Ray U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Geographic location: U.S.

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