We Can’t Blame Our Elders for Falling for Health Scams — But We Can Help Them

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Johanna Muy has enjoyed helping others since she was a child. A former volunteer crafts teacher, Muy became a promotora at New York’s Grameen Promotoras in 2021 after her husband had an accident that led to a thorny experience with the U.S. healthcare system. “My husband had no insurance and no one would provide treatment for him or agree to perform his surgery,” Muy tells Refinery29 Somos. “After the impotence anyone would feel after going through this, I said, ‘I’m here and I’d like to help others.’”  
In Latinx communities, a promotora is someone who receives specialized training to provide basic health education to their neighbors without being a professional healthcare worker. But in Jackson Heights, an overwhelmingly Latinx neighborhood in Queens, Muy doesn’t just help her community navigate a difficult and not-always-welcoming healthcare system. As conspiracy theories and unproven remedies target Latinxs, much of Muy’s work also includes controlling the spread of medical misinformation and educating people on health frauds so they are more likely to recognize it when they see or hear it. This isn’t always easy, especially when these medical scams are deceptively made to resemble the ancestral medicines our communities have known and used for centuries.
Many people in Latinx communities grew up being told to drink ginger or chamomile teas or rub certain ointments (Vicks, anyone?) on our necks or chest whenever we were coughing, sneezing, or running a fever. These traditional or folk remedies may not have cured us entirely, but they have their merits and can work well if a condition is mild. Unfortunately, though, not every at-home treatment is helpful. And, as first- and second-generation Latinxs, we may sometimes have to deal with parents, relatives, and elders who may try to get through their illnesses in ways that can be dangerous. For instance, some resort to pseudoscience or evidence-lacking methods that are too good to be true — anything from IQ enhancers and “cures” for chronic illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes, to alternatives to cancer treatments and harmful weight loss scams
But before we roll our eyes at the cousin who swears by diet teas or the tía who only eats soup when she feels sick, we need to consider the challenges our communities face and what drives them to turn to these methods in the first place. Healthcare in the U.S. is in general dismal, but it especially fails Latinx communities that have less access to quality care and support for a number of reasons. The United States has a highly privatized healthcare system, and even so-called public services such as Medicaid and Medicare are administered through mostly private providers, which means people need insurance to access it, which 49.9% of Latinxs in the U.S. aren’t covered by. 

Healthcare in the U.S. is in general dismal, but it especially fails Latinx communities that have less access to quality care and support for a number of reasons.

Even for those with insurance, the system can be tough to navigate and may prevent people from seeking culturally competent care if a doctor they feel comfortable with isn’t in their network. Even more, language barriers often go unaddressed, and immigrants who don’t speak English as their first language may decide not to engage with the healthcare system because translation and/or interpretation isn’t available for them.
Economic injustice, immigration status, workplace schedules, and financial obligations at home and abroad are also pressing concerns that force Latinxs to postpone or refuse visits to doctors and healthcare centers. “Some people [in our communities] work a lot and are afraid to ask for permission to go to the doctor, or they prefer to miss their appointments because they might help their families here in the U.S. and abroad,” says Yudith Cabrera, who also works at Grameen Promotoras, a role, like Muy, she took on because of a troubling personal experience with the healthcare system. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated already-existing divides: immigrants and people of color were the least likely to be able to work remotely. As a result, Latinxs dealt with high Covid-19 cases and related deaths.      
According to Dr. Laura Nervi, an Assistant Professor of Health Systems, Services and Policies at the University of New Mexico, a lack of cultural humility, and often no intention to fix it, also prevents better care for Latinx and immigrant patients. "When we research barriers to healthcare, we generally identify five barriers. That is the principal barrier in the United States,” she says of cultural competence and humility. Availability, accessibility, accommodation, and transportation are some of the other hurdles. 

From political to medical conspiracies, misinformation is at an all-time high in the U.S., and Latinxs are among the most targeted.

With healthcare inaccessible, many in our communities are forced to take their wellbeing into their own hands. Sometimes, people ask relatives abroad to bring medications from their home country when visiting the U.S. or only take medications when they’re at their worst. Other times, they fall for medical misinformation while desperate for alternative (and affordable) medicine. Cabrera, who became a promotora after she was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure and didn’t receive adequate education from healthcare personnel, says she has worked with diabetic members in her community who are also unclear about the disease. One time, she worked with someone who was purchasing alleged “cures” because they didn’t know that the human body naturally produces insulin and that their prescriptions help to aid this process. Another time, someone undergoing cancer treatments began taking teas instead of continuing with chemotherapy despite their stage 4 diagnosis.
From political to medical conspiracies, misinformation is at an all-time high in the U.S., and Latinxs are among the most targeted. Every day, our communities are inundated with inaccurate information and even disinformation, content that is deliberately deceptive, that spread through memes, videos, and fake news articles on social media, WhatsApp groups, and word-of-mouth. Due to a lack of access to quality care, many Latinxs must rely on each other and often put their trust in the relatives, friends, religious clergy, and pillars of their communities who, themselves often misguided, spread this medical misinformation. Even more, even on sites that restrict and remove false information, health frauds and misinformation in languages other than English have proven more difficult to regulate because moderation teams are often English-dominant, leaving misleading Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole content to spread quicker and wider.
One of the most infamous cases of health scams came in 2016 when it was revealed that global multi-level marketing corporation Herbalife Nutrition was targeting its dangerous dietary supplements at Latinxs and that it was causing liver damage. More recently, misinformation around the Covid-19 vaccine caused fear and confusion among Latinxs. Claims that the vaccine doesn’t work, carries microchips that are inserted in people’s bodies, can change people’s DNA, are made from aborted fetuses, or are the work of the Antichrist circulated throughout Latin America and Latinx U.S.A. Researchers believe that this misinformation is one of the primary reasons that Latinx people who are unvaccinated remain so. In a 2021 national poll by Voto Latino, a little more than half of all unvaccinated Latinxs believed that the vaccine was unsafe; that number rose to 67% among Spanish-speaking Latinxs.
It must be noted, of course, that Latinxs aren’t the only demographic targeted by medical misinformation. In fact, far-right politicians and talking heads spread unproven remedies, conspiracy theories, and anti-vax messaging to socioeconomically disadvantaged followers of various races and ethnicities. Similarly, the ultra-rich peddle essential oils and experimental gadgets (Goop, anyone?) that promote “wellness.” As such, we can’t blame people in our communities for also falling for celebrity-endorsed products, fake news, or health frauds when these are far easier to get ahold of than a visit to the doctor — but we can still try to help them. 

Our healthcare system needs to become more accessible, affordable, and accommodating so that our communities feel comfortable seeking care with qualified physicians

With the odds stacked against Latinxs, it’s easy to become exasperated when trying to help parents and elders avoid unproven or inadequate cures. According to Dr. Nervi, speaking to promotoras can help empower our communities by arming them with evidence-backed information that is culturally humble and accessible. Community health workers are trained in how to speak with people from marginalized backgrounds, and many of them specialize in youth advocacy. They often have a list of trusted healthcare practitioners and programs, and can help people start conversations with their loved ones, deal with healthcare issues, find affordable options, and may even teach classes about health topics prevalent in Latinx working-class communities.
As first-generation immigrants, our busy schedules, cultural divides, and even biases may keep us from being the best people to advise our parents and elders who didn’t grow up in this country. But this doesn’t mean we’re not in a position to speak up if we notice a loved one is taking something we know won’t help or, instead, could cause them harm — as long as we do so compassionately. But it’s not all on us, either. Our healthcare system needs to become more accessible, affordable, and accommodating so that our communities feel comfortable seeking care with qualified physicians. 

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