Bad Medicine

What Big Pharma Doesn't Want You To Know About Alternative Medicine

The American medical establishment was recently startled by a Harvard survey that found 42% of Americans routinely using one of sixteen "alternative" medical therapies. The American Medical Association and its minions responded with predictable outrage, and launched a media campaign intended to convince this gullible 42% of Americans that they were being conned by acupuncturists, osteopaths and other sorcerers, and that what appeared to be astonishingly successful treatments by these snake-oil peddlers were actually nothing of the kind.

The AMA’s own Council of Scientific Affairs conducted an extensive study of alternative medicine, and concluded in part, "Some of the interest in alternative medicine may be due to an ‘outbreak of irrationalism’ that includes New Age interest in ‘channeling’ and astrology. Television talk shows and the proliferation of books and tapes on alternative therapies are gobbled up by an uncritical public that does not understand how to sort quack theories from what might be reasonable." (Report 12 of the Council on Scientific Affairs: A-97)

Underscoring the marriage of medicine to money, Forbes ran a number of derisive features on alternative medicine. A typical quote - this one from Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry - is, "Homeopathy, magnetic therapy, therapeutic touch and acupuncture, growing every year, are complete nonsense and have only proven to have had a placebo effect." (Forbes Magazine: The Forbes Lunch, March 6, 2000)

People Want Alternatives To Big Pharma

Not surprisingly, the general public has not responded positively to the condescending and insulting tone used by these self-proclaimed skeptics. On the contrary, enthusiastic word-of-mouth continues to increase the market share of alternative medicine. Moreover, a greater number of doctors are - to the chagrin of the AMA - following their patients’ lead, and utilizing unconventional therapies in their own practice. The growing popularity of alternative medicine has allowed millions of patients to enjoy effective, economical, non-invasive treatment for conditions ranging from anxiety to cancer.

The well-publicized decisions by celebrities Pamela Anderson and Suzanne Somers to forego conventional treatment for serious maladies (Hepatitis C and breast cancer, respectively) has further exasperated the AMA, whose campaign against its holistic competitors loses credibility when those who can afford the best choose something other than their products. According to the AMA, alternative medicine is unproven, unpredictable, and dangerous.

The following statement (among others), recommended by the Council on Scientific Affairs, was adopted as AMA Policy at the 1997 AMA Annual Meeting: "There is little evidence to confirm the safety or efficacy of most alternative therapies. Much of the information currently known about these therapies makes it clear that many have not been shown to be efficacious. Well-designed, stringently controlled research should be done to evaluate the efficacy of alternative therapies." One can easily imagine that research under the AMA’s design and "stringent control" would not be likely to find much that is efficacious in alternative medicine.

And therein lies the rub. Because, what both sides frequently overlook - or ignore - is that, in any holistic discipline, the skill of the practitioner is far more important than it is in conventional medicine. Thus, conventional studies, which measure the effect of one drug on one condition, are simply inapplicable to homeopathy, acupuncture, or any other approach that requires an expert practitioner to carefully analyze the patient as a unique individual, perhaps prescribing completely different remedies for what appear to be similar symptoms.

The Importance of Competence

Doctors trained in the Western model are extremely knowledgeable regarding the analysis of pathological conditions. Modern technology can find the virus, the tumor, the inflammation that shouldn’t be there, but when it comes to solving the problem of illness, conventional doctors are limited largely to the treatment guidelines laid down by the AMA and the pharmaceutical companies. Alternative healers tend to focus less on the definition of illness and more on individualized therapeutic approaches to restoring the natural ability of each patient’s body to heal itself. This further obstructs comparisons between conventional and alternative systems because, in sharp contrast to the handful of pharmaceutical families - antibiotics, steroids, etc. - available in conventional medicine, a homeopath, for example, has several thousand completely different remedies to choose from, the importance of which is compounded by the fact that anything other than the exact similimum is not likely to have any effect at all. (Which brings up an important question invariably ignored by those who use the "placebo effect" argument: why do alternative healers frequently need to try several medicines until one works?)

Complicate the process further by adding questions of dose frequency and potency, and one can see why studies are difficult to construct. Continuing with the homeopathic example, one returns to the critical importance of the physician in the diagnostic process. Many important symptoms in homeopathy – such as the time of day a condition is most severe, for example, or whether or not the patient craves a particular type of food – are largely irrelevant in conventional medicine, and since patients new to alternative therapy generally don’t think about, much less mention, such symptoms, a successful inquiry by the physician is a fundamental prerequisite for a correct diagnosis.

Once this is accomplished, homeopathic diagnosis requires an accurate prioritization of the symptoms, along with a thorough analysis of the patient’s entire health picture using homeopathic reference texts that have been in a continuous state of revision for over two hundred years.

Clearly, an incompetent or inexperienced physician is likely to make one or more mistakes that result in improper remedy selection, and therefore an ineffectual or incomplete cure. Even an experienced homeopath may have trouble treating a patient who has undergone years of "allopathic" treatment, which frequently obscures, suppresses, or otherwise distorts the underlying symptomatology. Traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy, and other alternative symptoms require equal skill and training on the part of its practitioners.

Thus, when "skeptics" point to patients who have failed to recover under alternative treatments as proof of the inherent uselessness of these disciplines, the absurdity of their accusation is illustrated by a hundred year old quote from Dr. James Tyler Kent, who once wrote "If I can not cure a patient, the fault is not with homeopathy, but with me."

On the other hand, the popularity of alternative medicine has given rise to the predictable crop of charlatans who not only subject patients to the improper and frequently dangerous treatments the establishment is so fond of spotlighting, but also diminish the credibility of the systems they claim to practice. Ignorant, unqualified healers have done more to discredit legitimate alternative medicine than any amount of misinformation ever could.

It is, therefore, critically important that those seeking to become practitioners in alternative systems of medicine complete thorough courses of instruction from qualified teachers, and that patients who pursue alternative treatments carefully select physicians with proven records of successful cures.

With conscientious work by patients and doctors, alternative medicine stands a good chance of winning the public relations battle once and for all, allowing ever-growing numbers of people to enjoy the benefits of safe, natural systems of healing.

Key Points

  • Almost half of all Americans use some form of alternative medicine.
  • The corporate medical establishment sees alternatives as a threat to their profits.
  • The skill of the practitioner is vital to the success of alternative therapies.
  • Western medical testing procedures ignore the importance of individualized care.

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