The Not So Hidden Danger of ‘Alternative Medicine’.

With an increasing number of people turning to alternative therapies, does misinformation about their effectiveness pose a real danger?

complementary and alternative medicine
any of a range of medical therapies that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession, such as herbalism, acupuncture or crystal healing.

Many of the concepts which fall under the umbrella of ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (CAM) were practiced long before what we consider to be the rise of ‘modern medicine’ in the 19th Century. Pinpointing the exact origin of many of these techniques is practically impossible. Records state that Chinese herbal medicine dates back at least 2,000 years, and evidence of the practice of reflexology dates back to the Ancient Egyptians.

Research has been carried out into their effectiveness and has shown that the majority of these techniques do not affect the ailment which they claim to cure. The exceptions to this being: acupuncture, osteopathy, and chiropractic, which are all approved by the NHS in the United Kingdom, as there is clear evidence of their efficacy. More and more people are beginning to shun conventional medicine and seek alternative therapies, despite a distinct a lack of evidence in their favour. Given that most of these techniques are unregulated and unable to prove their effectiveness, does their use pose a risk to those desperate for help if “conventional” medicine has failed them?

The Rise of Alternative Medicine

Studies attempting to measure the increased usage of alternative medicine have been few and far between. The ones that do exist have all reported a distinct increase in the number of people reporting to have used some form of CAM. Eisenberg, Kessler & Foster et al (1993) found that 34% of American adults had used some form of CAM during the past twelve months. A follow-up study conducted in 1997 indicated a 25% increase in usage from the initial figures. These figures were echoed by the National Health Statistics Report in 2015, which found one-third of Americans had used alternative medicine.

In Britain, research conducted by YouGov in 2015 found a large majority of people believe in the effectiveness of CAM therapies. The image below shows the results of the survey:

Unsurprisingly, the three forms of CAM that most respondents believed to be genuinely effective (chiropractic, osteopathy, and acupuncture) are the only three with NHS approval in the United Kingdom. Other techniques had mixed results. Homeopathy as an example is a system of medicine based on the premise of ‘like for like.’ It argues that a substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person can be administered in a diluted form to cure the same symptoms in an unhealthy person. 39% of respondents to the survey believed that homeopathy could be genuinely effective, the lowest of all the CAMs in the study (excluding astrology.) Considering the overwhelming evidence of the ineffectiveness of homeopathy, a score of 39% demonstrates the true extent to which misinformation around alternative therapies has spread.

The Dangers of Spreading Misinformation

What do you get when you take a handful of misinformation, sprinkle in a touch of desperation, and top it off with a little deception? Somebody trying to make a quick buck.

Take the case of the Australian blogger, Belle Gibson, who lied to her thousands of followers with claims she had been diagnosed with cancer. She went on to publish her cookbook, entitled ‘The Whole Pantry’ and an accompanying app, claiming that money she made from book sales would be donated to charity. It was later discovered that she was never diagnosed with cancer, but only after book publisher Penguin paid Gibson’s company over $250,000 for her cookbook, and sales of her app and book combined totaled over $440,000. She was ordered to repay a fine of $410,000 for falsely claiming the money received from sales would go to charity, which as of May 2019 has still not been paid.

But it isn’t only people trying to scam us of our hard-earned cash that we should be wary of. Celebrities are a huge influence on our behavior, whether we realize it or not. An Instagram post of Taylor Swift wearing a particular pair of designer sunglasses might send the internet into meltdown and cause her fans to go out in droves to buy the same pair. No big deal. But on the other side of this coin is the very stark reality, that what celebrities say and do matters. Noel Edmonds is a British television presenter. In terms of celebrity standing, he is several leagues below Taylor Swift, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s on television, which makes him famous. In 2016 he made headlines when he posted a tweet, in which he suggested that a cancer patient’s illness was caused by their bad attitude. Of course, he is entitled to his beliefs, but that sort of opinion can be very misleading to those that hear it. The price to pay for celebrities is an obligation as role models to be careful when voicing opinions on sensitive topics such as this.

But If The Treatments Aren’t Effective, What’s The Appeal?

With the consensus being that the majority of alternative therapies are not effective, why are we seeing an increase in their use? The article below contains an interview with a former naturopath, Britt Hermes. She describes how a negative experience with a physician is what pushed her away from conventional medicine, something which she says is becoming increasingly common. She studied to become a naturopath, sucked in by the prospect of a curriculum based upon ‘natural’ medicine. She stepped away from the career after discovering the accepted practice among naturopaths of providing unapproved, illegally imported drugs to cancer patients.

This lack of strict regulation in alternative therapies compared to that of conventional medicine highlights a very real risk. More and more people are seeking out alternative therapies as a result of a negative experience with doctors. The reason for this, according to Zubin Damania, MD is that naturopaths have one thing which modern medical practitioners lack: time. A standard doctor’s appointment is ten to fifteen minutes. Are we surprised that people are succumbing to the allure of therapies such as naturopathy, with promises of an initial 90-minute appointment, and tempt you in with phrases such as an “individually suited health plan” and a “holistic approach”? When you want to believe in something, it makes it much easier for others to convince you of the truth you want to hear.

“Doctors now make more eye contact with their computers than they do with their patients” — Zubin Damania, MD

The Price For Misinformation Is Paid In Lives

Did you know that 40% of Americans believe that cancer can be cured by alternative therapies alone? 40%. The same percentage of people in Britain who believe in the effectiveness of homeopathy believe that therapies such as acupuncture, or homeopathy, or eating raw fruit and vegetables can cure cancer.

Katie Britton-Jordan, a mother of one, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2016. Upon her diagnosis, she was offered conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy and a mastectomy. She declined, opting for alternative therapies, such as dietary supplements and a diet consisting of raw fruit and vegetables. Doctors told her that she would die if she didn’t receive proper treatment.

She passed away on Saturday 25th May 2019.

Upon first reading that news article, I was shocked. I felt angry. My head was full of thoughts such as ‘How could she be so stupid?’ and ‘How could she ignore the advice of medical professionals?’ But upon reflection, it’s easy to understand how someone like Katie, vulnerable and afraid, could be so easily swayed towards the benefits of an alternative treatment.

The internet is awash with claims of miracle cures, articles listing ‘Ten Fruits That Will Cure Cancer’ and the rest of the bullshit. Can we blame her for seeking a treatment without the side effects of chemotherapy, or the life-altering effects of a mastectomy? Katie should have taken her doctor’s advice. But she is not to blame for how widespread the misinformation around alternative therapies has become. I’m not saying there is no place in the world of medicine for any of these alternative treatments. As I’ve said, some of them have proven to be somewhat effective. But the rest of them? Don’t waste your money or your time, and most importantly, don’t risk your life. Don’t be the next Katie, whose daughter now has to grow up without a parent, because her mother was misled to believe that she could cure herself of cancer by eating fruit and vegetables.

Trying to make the world a better place, one word at a time.

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