When we seek out an MD, we believe we’re in the care of someone who has received extensive training and is ethically bound to “do no harm.” But what we may not realize is that the financial realities of modern medicine are leading some physicians to tout untested, unnecessary, or potentially dangerous cures. In this three-part series, Health examines the specialties most vulnerable to these unscrupulous doctors.
Mary Lynn Adams just wanted to lose some weight while her husband was deployed in Afghanistan. “I wanted to look good by the time he got back,” says Adams, a 28-year-old homemaker in Tennessee. She found a diet doctor last December after reading a flyer that came in the mail. The doctor checked her height (5 feet 7 inches), weight (238 pounds), and blood pressure, and did some basic blood work including testing her cholesterol levels. Although Adams had high blood pressure (145/95), the doctor recommended that she start the prescription appetite suppressant phenterminea drug not recommended for patients with high blood pressure because, as a stimulant, it may increase blood pressure even more. “He explained to me that the risks of my being overweight were worse than the risks of having high blood pressure,” Adams says. The drug definitely curbed her appetite”I felt sick just looking at food,” she saysbut she also noticed her heart was racing. A month later, her blood pressure was up to 150/100. Her doctor cut her dose in half, but Adams decided to stop taking the drug. She’s now working with a personal trainer, who she says is benefiting her more than the medicine.
Many women assume that any weight-loss treatment prescribed by a doctor must be safecertainly safer than sketchy supplements or weird crash diets. But the truth is that some doctors are pushing the limits of what’s medically acceptable, prescribing drugs that may put their patients’ safety at risk or offering treatments that aren’t proven to work. “The field is ripe for abuse because there are a lot of desperate people out there trying to lose weight and a few doctors who just want to make some fast money,” says Rhonda Hamilton, MD, MPH, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and medical coordinator of Bariatric Quality at Winchester Hospital in Winchester, Massachusetts.