A Magnetic Patient

by Sandeep Jauhar, M.D.
New York Times

He walked into my office and collapsed into a chair. He leaned forward, a bearded, middle-aged man whose bowler hat and neckerchief lent him a vaudevillian air. “The shortness of breath is getting worse,” he said. “The medications aren’t helping.”

He removed his shirt so I could listen to his heart. Then I noticed it strapped to his chest like some sort of talisman.

“What’s this?” I asked.
He handed it to me. “My magnet.”
“Why do you have it?”

Magnetic fields dilate blood vessels, he told me. They have a host of salutary effects on the body, he said. He had first heard about magnets a few years back; since then he had been using them to heal cuts, relieve headaches, and for his failing heart. Ever since he put the magnet on his chest, he claimed his heart had improved. When we first met, he was near death. “Just imagine where I would have been without the magnet,” he commented.

“You should have told me,” I said.

“You never asked,” he replied. He said that I had given off a negative vibe when alternative medicine had come up.

“I’m not aware of any good evidence for alternative therapies.” I stammered. “How did I know without reading the current research?” He demanded.

The situation isn’t so unusual: roughly one in three Americans use these remedies. Yet, fearing a negative reaction, few tell their physicians. What’s a doctor to do?

In 2002, an article in The Annals of Internal Medicine advocated a Zen approach. If an unproven therapy (like magnets) isn’t harmful, the authors wrote, it probably can be tolerated, especially if standard treatments are only marginally effective (like those for heart failure). Chastened by my patient’s criticism, and realizing that I owed him more respect, I apologized. He accepted, and then told me that he had been taking more than a dozen other unproven products.

As he left, he handed me a tiny magnet as a gift. I keep it on my desk as a reminder: If you don’t ask, they won’t tell.