Alternative to what

IMG_7030 Almost $27 billion is spent annually on treatments that aren’t helping, and the businesses that are selling them don’t want you to know that there are real options out there. Without any government regulation millions of consumers have no idea what they’re putting into their bodies, and how those substances might impact their health. Bleary eyed and brain dead from a lack of sleep in the small hours of the morning, energetic hucksters selling magic charms and high hopes can seem like welcome company. In between the Girls Gone Wild videos and party line ads for the lonely, are men like Kevin Trudeau who promise a cure for what ails you, who are clamoring for your healthcare spending. It sounds like a frightening scenario, but there are a number of doctors and scientists that are trying to stem the tide and inform the public of the dangers of alternative medicine. These “natural” and “traditional” methods, practices outside of what’s taught by fancy accredited medical schools, are inserting themselves into mainstream medicine to the detriment of the healthcare consumer. Of course there are thousands of types of alternative medicines from acupuncture to reflexology, but most are as likely to cure what ails you as ordering Girls Gone Wild will help you find someone special in your life. Alternative medicine is big business that was built by exploiting holes in government regulation, fear, and scientific illiteracy. Practices like homeopathy, reflexology and iridology that have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community (or, as in the case of therapeutic touch, by a precocious fourth grader) persist because of this exploitation. The Food and Drug Administration was created in 1906 under President Theodore Roosevelt as a mechanism to enforce the Pure Food and Drug Act in response to a proliferation of drugs that were poisoning their users or were not doing what they claimed (cocaine was a popular ingredient in many of these substances). Homeopathic remedies were grandfathered in as acceptable because of their popularity and a lot of other categories – vitamins, minerals and herbs – were left outside of regulation. This means that there isn’t any way to assure that these products contain significant amounts of the much ballyhooed ingredients, or that they can even do what they claim. The only regulation that applies comes from the Federal Trade Commission which can only react to consumer complaints and can be thrown off by vague disclaimers that appear in the fine print (think about the “for entertainment purposes only” blurb that appear on commercials for psychic hotlines). Death and disease can be incredibly frightening, people find comfort in friends and family and that human touch that’s so infrequently found inside of HMOs. When my niece was at Children’s Hospital with pneumonia I spent a few days by her bedside and only saw her doctor once, nurses were coming and going all the time, but actual doctors seemed few and far between to explain what was going on. When you combine this sense of isolation with all of the accoutrement of medicine, the machines and even its language, it doesn’t make people feel like they’re very important. One of the advantages of alternative medicine, especially therapeutic touch, is that it involves a lot of contact and attention from the practitioner, helping to make the patient a lot more comfortable. But death and disease aren’t the only frightening things in the field of healthcare. Kevin Trudeau and others also use fear of the other, and of conspiracies to increase the cachet of alternative medicine. Trudeau’s book, Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About, is a clear example of these salesmen trying to portray themselves as the underdogs fighting against groups like the government and the American Medical Association. Anyone who has ever cheered for the Chicago Cubs knows all about the appeal of an underdog, and anyone who has ever listened to someone talk about a grassy knoll or faked moon landing knows about the appeal of conspiracy theories. Alternative practitioners especially like to assail the AMA as trying to squash their claims to keep selling expensive drugs that only keep people hovering on death’s door, rather than curing them. While there have been a lot of issues regarding relationships between doctors and pharmaceutical companies, most doctors aren’t even members of the AMA which has been much less vocal about criticisms regarding alternative medicine since losing a lawsuit by chiropractors in 1976. Controversy surrounding the Intelligent Design movement that made the news recently has highlighted the fact that many Americans have very little understanding about the processes and language of science. One chief example is in the use of the word theory, practitioners of alternative medicine and ID proponents use the word theory to mean a guess or conjecture, where in science a theory is a set of ideas used as an explanation for a certain set of phenomena that are derived from observation and experimentation. By using the ambiguity of language alternative practitioners try to equate the germ theory of disease (one of the cornerstones of modern medicine) with chakras or subluxations, ideas that have no real intellectual substance behind them and fail to pose any mechanism that can be tested. The problem with science and medicine is that they are based on probability and correlations, they can’t provide black and white answers because there is the assumption that any idea must be able to change based upon new evidence. In order to establish that a treatment is effective researchers need to conduct multiple studies and review them carefully to make sure that nothing was wrong with the methodology, to check all of the variables that might be affecting the results of the test. Many alternative practices promise certainty and definite results, unlike medicine which has to cope with the many complexities of the human body and the fact that what we know about any given situation is so limited. Science and medicine are also hard, doctors go through eight years of higher education and are constantly seeking out new information through journals and seminars in order to make sure that they’re on top of their game, and specialists have even more training. If people want to spend their money on alternative medicine, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that when alternative medicine is coupled with standard treatments, as many HMOs are now offering, it is simply fraudulent; when alternative medicine is being used in place of conventional medicine it is downright dangerous. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published an article in 1998 that showed that 140 of 172 children that died after the parents withheld medical care based upon religious beliefs could have been saved through conventional medical intervention. By neglecting proven treatments for certain diseases in favor of alternative practices people are putting themselves at unnecessary risk. Alternative is a loaded word, because it implies that both options are equally valid. While two sets of directions for getting to work might produce the same results in the end, alternative medicine has not been shown to be anywhere near as effective as conventional medicine. Science should always be open to new ideas, and some alternative practices have been shown to be effective in certain cases (chiropractic for dealing with chronic back pain for example), but when ideas have been shown to be invalid they need to be discarded. -Written in 2007, with apologies to the people who were cribbed from and who inspired me to start writing on the topic for a class.