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Dr. Pollack's Snake Oil

Notes from an emergency room doctor: My friend, Patsy, says she has lots of energy lately, ever since she started getting special treatments.

"I get a massage where they use some kind of magnet to balance my magnetic field. And a machine that looks like a blow dryer cleans out my lymph system."

"Morning after a treatment," she says, "I'm bounding out of bed."

Over the years, Patsy's tried several unconventional therapies. She tried rolfing, deep tissue massage, for a back injury; psychic cures, the laying on of hands to shoot healing energy into you, for a knee injury; and a colon cleaner, an enema made of sea algae, to treat sluggishness.

Patsy's not alone in seeking out alternatives to conventional medicine. More Americans use "alternative" healers than use physicians. In 1990, Americans made 388 million visits to primary care physicians but 425 million trips to alternative medicine providers. They spent $12.8 billion out-of-pocket for hospitalization but $13.7 billion for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic, and more bizarre treatments such as reflexology and energy healing.

Many alternative therapies have a long history of patient satisfaction. Acupuncture has been a traditional therapy in China for 2000 years. It uses needles to stimulate spots on precisely mapped areas of the body that supposedly have neural connections to specific organs. Thousands of U.S. physicians now use acupuncture to treat addictions, pain, nausea, and even depression.

Chiropractic believes that diseases are caused by misalignments in the spine. When used in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders, particularly low back pain, chiropractic provides effective relief for many patients.

Homeopathy believes that diseases can be fought by giving diluted, microdoses of particular substances to progressively energize the immune system. A homeopath might treat a sore throat with microdoses of crushed bee, mercury, or even snake venom.

Several other alternative therapies, such as hypnosis, biofeedback, and meditation, work by altering a patient's mental state.

Many of these alternatives to conventional medicine may indeed be effective. But they suffer one great failure. Few have an abundance of well-controlled, scientific trials to back up their claims.

As for the more bizarre therapies that my friend Patsy so ardently advocates, I'm a skeptic. My friend would be first in line to buy the bottled cure for "all that what ails ya" from the snake oil salesman standing in the back of a Conestoga. And she'd probably be very satisfied. Many unconventional remedies work because a positive mental outlook is indisputably essential to wellness. And if it's one thing my friend has after she gets massaged and lavaged, it's a positive outlook.

What I need is a gimmick. If I'm ever to be rich and Riviera bound, I need to conjure up a convincing therapeutic cure for something that someone like my friend Patsy will buy. How about this idea? "DR. POLLACK'S GARLIC LOTION! It'll cure you and you can also use it on linguini." I can see the bucks rolling in now.