The curious case of The Liver Doc & how it can impact health misinformation

The curious case of The Liver Doc & how it can impact health misinformation

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Dr Cyriac Abby Philips’ X account was recently suspended, following an interim injunction order by an Indian court for defaming a multinational personal care and pharmaceutical company.

He had it coming, says a colleague, as we discuss the suspension of Dr Cyriac Abby Philips’ X (twitter) account — @theliverdr. Last week, a civil court in Bengaluru issued ex-parte, temporary injunction restraining the physician-scientist from posting or publishing defamatory remarks against the Himalaya Wellness Company, a multinational personal care and pharmaceutical company.

While the hepatologist from The Liver Institute, Center of Excellence in Gastrointestinal Sciences, Rajagiri Hospital, Kerala, India, has been vocal about his decision to challenge the order in a higher court of law, it is not likely to solve the larger predicament. Can doctors fearlessly voice scientific facts? Do they have the freedom to call out unempirical cures and quick-fixes that cause harm to countless people? Or is it better to quietly toe the line?

In an ideal world, doctors shouldn’t have reason to fear. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. In 2019, when we started First Check as a health fact-checking platform, the editorial team was often confounded by how clinicians simply refused to comment on certain viral health videos or posts on social media. Most of these contentious claims had their basis in alternative medicine and medical practitioners were wary of saying anything against Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Siddha, and Unani practices – despite debunking the myth off the record.

Over the last four years, there have been quite a few fact-check stories where our fact-checkers have struggled to get a relevant expert to share a science-backed perspective on why a certain health claim is false or misleading. The reluctance, the agony, the concern…were all too palpable.

However, The Liver Doc, as Dr Cyriac Abby Philips is popularly called on social media, never shied away from calling a spade a spade. As vocal as he was on (then) Twitter about the perils of medical misinformation and creating awareness about evidence-based medical practices, he was also accessible to fact-checkers. You can read his inputs on First Check stories herehere, and here.

As the outspoken doctor’s popularity grew, so did the trolls and threats. Any conversation about alternative medicine in India is invariably connected with religion and culture. Over the last decade, with the government pushing to revive the glory of traditional Indian medicines, the subject has also become overwhelmingly political.

Last year, the Kerala State Medical Council served Dr Philips a legal notice for defaming Indian Systems of Medicine. His views on giloy, a common herb used in Ayurveda, caused much outrage. Eventually, he was cleared of all charges.

In 2019, he co-authored a paper analysing the death of a patient who was taking dietary supplements manufactured by Herbalife, a US-based herbal supplement company. The company got the paper retracted by the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology and Dr Philips filed a complaint against the journal editors.

His courage to fight the good fight, perhaps, stems from his experience of treating patients suffering from complications arising due to the use of alternative medicines. In the case of Himalaya Wellness, Dr Philips got the company’s popular product, Liv.52, prescribed for liver disease patients, tested by third-party independent labs to find that they could cause severe liver damage. He posted the reports on his Twitter handle, and all hell broke loose.

While the company sticks to its narrative about defamatory statements causing severe financial losses, the doctor maintains that “everything was done as per standard protocol and scientific methodology”. Aren’t “science-backed and evidence-backed” facts a good defence against defamation?

Legally, truth is the strongest defense against defamation. In Dr Philips’ case, only time will tell whether the truth will prevail. Next hearing by the court is scheduled on January 5, 2024.

Meanwhile, the medical fraternity now has more reasons to stay mute on controversial subjects. Even as viral, unsubstantiated health claims continue to be made on social media platforms, and innocent people continue to be the victims of unscientific treatments and health misinformation.