Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hell Naw to Alternative Medicine

The following is a reply to a discussion group after a talk about health disparities and alternative/holistic medicines and therapies. 

The alternative medicine talk at the end of class made me want to jump out of my skin. Yes, there are alternative remedies and therapies for ailments which plague us. In the face of crises it is very common to reach for the simplest method to deal with a disease. Economic instability, governmental policy, the lack of access to viable and proven treatments etc all plays a role when an alternative remedy is suggested. Suffering is a part of the human experience and alternative therapies are meant as a response to that suffering. The question is do they really work? Is there a body of evidence which suggests the alternative therapies in question, no matter what they are, mitigate or eliminate the suffering of the individual or group? Many who have tried holistic/alternative remedies report positive results. They report feeling better as a result of those therapies. Upon further review of their medical history, it is often discovered that they have tried proven methods concurrently and/or consecutively with unproven methods. They may not report that aspect, not out of deception, but due to confirmation bias or just misreporting the events.  We have to be very careful to not mistake correlation for causation. Plenty of folks have claimed the ailment they possess just magically stopped. Diseases have life cycles as they are living organisms. We may not always determine why a disease may have stopped mutating but that in no way lends any credibility to any holistic/alternative methods. The person really wants the alternative therapies to be the cause of improving their condition. Wanting the methods to work is much different than showing that the methods have actually worked, and that those are methods useful in explaining the disease, and how it may function in patients in the future.

I understand the mistrust directed at the pharmaceutical, medical, government, and scientific communities. A lot of people have misused powerful positions to promote nonsense, quackery, racism, sexism, patriarchy, and outright bullshit. The Tuskegee Experiment was mentioned in class. Yes, it was a terrible event perpetrated by unscrupulous persons in the medical field and the government. The aftermath of that event brought about the creation of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research which was the first public national body to shape bioethics policy in the United States. On the heels of a tragedy, it took the actions of good people who were willing to demand change, and get it done to prevent such an event from happening again. It is a call to action to be watchdogs and take the message to the global arena.

I can empathize with the frustration a person may feel when dealing with an illness, and seeing a doctor and little to no improvement is achieved over a significant amount of time. But that does not mean we ought to promote alternative methods in lieu of frustration and lack of resources. It means we have to have a serious dialogue and plan of action about how we live, how we allocate resources, talk to medical communities, and learn about diseases. We have to talk to each other and teach one another about our health and the systems which support it. I am advocating for a social transformation instead of alternative remedies. I concede the view may be utopian but I think it’s far better than dealing with homeopathy, chakras, reflexology, chiropractors, acupuncturists, Ouija boards, and every other form of chicanery which makes a ton of claims but when asked for evidence they fail to produce results. It’s not just a disagreement. It’s about the lack of evidence for the claims presented and quite often ignoring evidence which disconfirms the alternative method and promoting therapies which fall outside of the consensus. Not only is that wrong, it is also dangerous. 

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