What is it about the word ‘alternative’ that lends undue respectability to the words that follow? For example we have ‘Alternative Energy’, ‘Alternative Lifestyle’ and of course, ‘Alternative Medicine’. The word ‘alternative’ confers a patina of respectability to concepts that are often found wanting if only we are prepared to probe a bit deeper.
Many of us are critical of modern medicine and rightly so. Medicine is an evolving science and has yet to find cures and effective treatments for many common and often fatal diseases. And this is where ‘Alternative Medicine’ enters the fray. In fact the term ‘Alternative Medicine’ covers a whole host of so called ‘therapies’ from the down right bizarre and silly (yes homoeopathy, I’m talking about you) through to treatments which have acquired a certain degree of prestige, such as acupuncture; even conventional medical practitioners have become seduced. And let us not forget the financial incentives. Alternative medicine is a big and largely unregulated business. It is estimated that in the
alone consumers spend 34 billion
dollars annually on alternative therapies. Unscrupulous individuals are making
a lot of money as ‘practitioners’. Undoubtedly there are those who are sincere
and believe in the effectiveness of their therapies. Equally, there are those
who are utter charlatans whose main concern is the fleecing of the gullible and
Adherents of alternative therapies often claim astonishing results for their respective treatments. Beware of ‘cure all’ therapies. Panaceas for all our ills do not exist; this applies to both conventional medicine and the alternative variety. Modern medicine is founded on sound scientific principles and is subject to the rigours and self righting mechanism of the scientific experimental method. This of course reflects the world of perfection, which has never existed, but at least medicine is well intentioned, and although progress is sometimes faltering, it is inexorably forward. This is not the case with alternative therapies. Indeed they often revel in their unconventional non-scientific approach. Or if they attempt to explain their mechanisms they invoke non conventional ‘science’ or weird esoteric principles beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. And really, this is the important point: Modern medicine is based on the double blind clinical trial. To judge a treatment effective, or not as the case may be, it needs to evaluated in a medical trial with a suitably selected control group. The results are then published in a scientifically respected and peer reviewed journal. The process is not fast but is designed to weed out effective from the non-effective drugs, procedures and treatments. In contrast, most practitioners of the alternative usually have little time for rigorous procedure. When they claim ‘data’ supporting the effectiveness of their nostrums it is mostly in the form of personal testimony (not worth the paper it is not printed on). In other words, patients report that the treatment is effective. Here is the problem: How are we to judge a treatments true effectiveness? Sometimes disorders get better regardless of intervention; people exaggerate with respect to their illness and possible cure. Others are not really ill at all; people lie. The placebo effect is a real phenomenon. If we think a treatment is going to be effective then that may well be the case, irrespective of medical worth. The only way to distinguish between these possibilities and uncover a treatments true value is by well established medical and scientific principles.
But surely I hear you say: ‘Not all the so called alternative therapies should be judged together. Granted there some that are plain daft, but others such as acupuncture, are actually very effective for certain conditions’. A fair point. Of all the so called alternative therapies, acupuncture has received more than its fair share of scientific evaluation. It has some of the hallmarks of an effective treatment. It is an ancient practice (must be worthy then?) and a degree of physical intervention is involved; needles are inserted and stimulated, either manually or by electric current. It also has its own ‘pseudo-scientific’ principles. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the proposed rationale for its effectiveness, so I’ll briefly summarise: Practitioners believe that by inserting needles at specific node points (define please), the needles influence the body’s natural energy channels (Chi- nice word, but what does it actually mean?). Whilst this is the basis for a hypothesis it has not been borne up by scientific evidence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the treatment is ineffective. It could simply mean that the proposed mechanism of action is wrong. So what do the studies show? As far as I’m aware, and I am more than happy to be contradicted, the only sound scientific evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture, for anything, has been for the management of pain; that’s it. Moreover, it is no more effective than conventional analgesic drugs. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take morphine or even Panadol. Other claims for acupuncture, as a treatment, are anecdotal and therefore completely worthless as evidence. To convince me otherwise I will require a reference to an article outlining a well designed and executed trial published in an established and respected scientific or medical journal.
I suppose we all want and yearn for quick fixes in life. This applies to many things from our money woes through to our health, and yes, it pays to be questioning and prudent in all things (this person does not exist). In some ways bad decisions in many of life’s activities have no long acting effects on our ultimate well being. Bad decisions with regard to our medical conditions can, and do, have catastrophic consequences. Steve Jobs, the highly talented and mega rich co- founder of Apple died in 2011 of pancreatic cancer. No surprise there. Pancreatic cancer is associated with a particularly poor prognosis. It is an aggressive disease and usually diagnosed when advanced. Once the disease has spread to other sites (metastasised) an early death is inevitable. Consequently, less than 1% of sufferers survive 5yrs post diagnosis. Not even the wealthy can circumvent medical reality. However, this is not quite true in Job’s case. Most pancreatic cancers are nasty adenocarcinomas. Jobs had a rare form of pancreatic cancer (islet cell neuroendocrine tumour) which is associated with a favourable prognosis and is very amenable to early treatment. It is estimated that between 80 to 90 percent of patients will still be around after 10 years-if treated. Jobs decided to eschew conventional medical treatment and opt for a treatment regime based on diet, herbs, acupuncture and spiritual consultation (God help us all!). After 9 months of ineffective ‘treatments’ he elected for surgery. By this time his tumour had spread and extensive surgery was therefore necessary.
Steve Jobs was an intelligent, demanding, egomaniacal perfectionist who also happened to be a Buddhist. He placed his faith in unconventional treatments of dubious provenance when he should have been undergoing effective, conventional, medical treatments which would have saved his life. The irony of course, is that the character traits which served him so well in his creative and business life failed him at the last, much to the exasperation of his family and doctors. I suspect, towards the end, Steve Jobs realised his folly, but by then no amount of chanting or chemotherapy could have saved his life.