Paltrow modern-day ‘quack’, says health chief

Disclaimer: The show was made to “entertain and inform – not provide medical advice”. © Getty

Why do we still yearn for unconventional medicine? Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has made its Netflix debut. She calls it an “optimisation of life”. Critics say she is dangerously misinformed.

Somewhere in sunny California, Gwyneth Paltrow is beginning to look a little nervous.

“Should I be scared?” she asks as a woman in a white coat starts to push needles into her face. As her own blood is gently pressed back into her, Paltrow’s face turns a vivid shade of pink.

This is the vampire facial, just one of many unconventional treatments tried out by Paltrow and her employees in The Goop Lab, which aired on Netflix in January.

In the last decade, Paltrow has become the poster child of “wellness”, but she is not without her critics. This week, Britain’s NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens attacked the actress for putting people’s health at risk, warning against a rise of “quacks, charlatans, and cranks”.

Unconventional medicine is far from new. Until the beginning of the last century, so called “snake oil salesmen” were abundant, often using impressive marketing or displays of charisma to sell “cure-alls”.

Products like Dr Williams’s Pink Pills for Pale People (for a healthy glow) or Dr Scott’s Electric Foot Salve (for sweating and frostbite) rarely delivered the miraculous results they promised.

In fact, not only did they not work, some of these “medicines” were actively dangerous, such as the cocaine toothache drops popular amongst Victorian children.

Medical science has never been more advanced than today. So, why do we still look for alternative cures?

Stevens himself blames the internet – celebrities promote dubious products online, and misinformation now travels faster than ever before.

Modern medicine is not perfect. A trip to the doctor’s office is rarely fun. Due to long waiting lists and underfunding, medical staff can be overwhelmed, leading some people to seek other avenues.

For many, turning to unconventional medicine is about finding hope after they have felt let down by mainstream medicine. People with problems that are difficult to treat, such as anxiety, are more likely to seek such treatments.

About a fifth of American adults with back pain, for example, use complementary or alternative therapies. These therapists often market treatments as “holistic” (treating the whole person rather than just the disease).

So, why do we yearn for unconventional medicine?

Too good to be true?

Alternative medicine provides hope when conventional treatments fail, say some. If patients think alternative treatments work – perhaps due to a placebo effect – there is no reason not to use them. Science cannot explain everything. Practices like the vampire facial are usually a harmless part of the new wellness trend. It is a lifestyle choice, much like an interest in spirituality.

This is dangerous misinformation, say others. Fake news is not restricted to politics – alternative therapies prey on people’s natural concern about their health. It is not harmless. Cancer patients who used only alternative therapies were 2.5 times more likely to die in a five-year period than those who used standard treatments. Unconventional medicine is little more than a scam.

You Decide

  1. Are unconventional medicines always a bad idea?
  2. Is it irresponsible of Netflix to promote The Goop Lab?

Activities

  1. Write a list of five things you think are different about visiting a doctor today to treat an illness compared to150 years ago.
  2. Choose a popular unconventional medicine or treatment. In groups, find out why it is so widely used and look for research proving or disproving the treatment. Explain your findings to the class in a short presentation.

Some People Say...

“A drowning man will clutch at a straw.”

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), English lawyer and social philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow launched her “wellness and lifestyle brand” Goop in 2008. The company began as a weekly email newsletter, before expanding to include a website, an online shop, magazine, podcast, and Netflix series. In 2017, Goop paid a $145,000 settlement after an advertising watchdog complained to regulators about over 50 health claims made by the company.
What do we not know?
Quite simply, we do not know the long-term effects of many of the unconventional medicines or therapies showcased in The Goop Lab. Without long-term, peer-reviewed studies, it is impossible to say if the treatments are effective, or even if they are safe. It is also difficult to know if practices like the vampire facial or “snowga” (yoga in the snow) will remain celebrity fads, or if they will become commonplace.

Word Watch

Vampire facial
A treatment involving extracting the patient’s blood, separating the plasma and then re-injecting the plasma into the skin on the face. In theory, it is supposed to rejuvenate the skin by tricking the body into healing.
The Goop Lab
An US documentary series about the lifestyle and wellness company Goop, founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The series launched on 24 January on Netflix.
NHS
The government-funded medical and health care service that everyone living in the UK can use without being asked to pay.
Quacks
Unqualified people who claim medical knowledge or other skills.
Charlatans
People who pretend to have more knowledge or skills than they really possess.
Cranks
People who have strange or unusual ideas or beliefs.
Snake oil salesmen
People who lie in order to make money; fraudsters.
Cocaine
An addictive drug that can be used as an anaesthetic. Today, cocaine is illegal in most countries.
Anxiety
A medical condition in which you feel frightened or worried.
Complementary or alternative therapies
These offer a different approach to conventional or mainstream medicine. They include therapies that aren’t usually part of conventional medical care, such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture and homeopathy. They are usually used alongside, or as well as, conventional therapies.
Placebo
Used an adjective to describe something that works because you believe in its effectiveness – rather than it actually being a cure. A placebo (noun) is a substance given to someone who is told that it is a particular medicine (when it isn’t actually one), either to make that person feel as if they are getting better or to compare the effect of the real medicine when given to others.

Subjects

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