MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Guest post by Louise Lubetkin

A few months ago The Economist ran one of its Where Do You Stand? polls asking readers whether alternative medicine should be taught in medical schools:

In Britain and Australia, horrified scientists are fighting hard against the teaching of alternative therapies in publicly funded universities and against their provision in mainstream medical care. They have had most success in Britain. Some universities have been shamed into ending alternative courses. The number of homeopathic hospitals in Britain is dwindling. In 2005 the Lancet, a leading medical journal, declared “the end of homeopathy”. In 2010 a parliamentary science committee advised that “the government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments including homeopathy.” So, should alternative medicine be treated on a par with the traditional sort and taught in medical schools?

It may surprise you to discover that more than two thirds of the almost 43,000 respondents were of the opinion that yes, it should.

Given that the use of alternative therapies is now so widespread, a plausible case can be made for giving medical students a comprehensive overview of the field as part of their training. But that’s not at all what the poll asked. Here again is how it was worded:

So, should alternative medicine be treated on a par with the traditional sort and taught in medical schools? (emphasis added)

That such a hefty majority of those who responded – and Economist readers are generally affluent and well-educated – came out firmly in favour not just of the teaching of alternative medicine but explicitly of parity between it and standard medicine, is both a reflection of the seemingly unstoppable popularity of alternative medicine and also, in a wider sense, of just how respectable it has become to be indifferent to, or even overtly hostile towards science.

It is ironic that since its very first issue in 1843 The Economist has proudly displayed on its contents page a mission statement declaring that the magazine is engaged in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

It would seem that a significant sample of its poll-answering readership has a somewhat distorted vision of the struggle between intelligence and ignorance. In this postmodern worldview truth is relative: science is simply one version of reality; anti-science is another – and the two carry equal weight.

The very term “alternative medicine” – I use that expression with the greatest reluctance – is itself an outgrowth of this phenomenon, implying as it does that there are two valid, indeed interchangeable, choices in the sphere of medicine, a mainstream version and a parallel and equally effective alternative approach. That the term “alternative medicine” has now so seamlessly entered our language is a measure of how pervasive this form of relativism has become.

In fact, alternative medicine and mainstream medicine are absolutely not equivalent, nor are they by any means interchangeable, and to speak about them the way one might when debating whether to take the bus or the subway to work – both will get you there reliably – constitutes an assault on truth.

How did alternative medicine, so very little of which has ever been conclusively shown to be of even marginal benefit, achieve this astounding degree of acceptance?

Certainly the pervasive and deeply unhealthy influence of the pharmaceutical industry over the practice of medicine has done much to erode public confidence in the integrity of the medical profession.  Alternative medicine has nimbly stepped into the breach, successfully casting itself as an Everyman’s egalitarian version of medicine with a gentle-sounding therapeutic philosophy based not on pharmaceuticals with their inevitable side effects, but on helping the body to heal itself with the assistance of “natural” and freely available remedies.

This image of alternative medicine as a humble David bravely facing down the medico-pharmaceutical establishment’s bullying Goliath does not, however, stand up well to scrutiny. Alternative medicine is without question a hugely lucrative enterprise. Moreover, unlike the pharmaceutical industry or mainstream medicine, it is almost entirely unregulated.

According to the US National Institutes of Health, in 2007 Americans spent almost $40 billion out of their own pockets (i.e., not reimbursed by health insurance) on alternative medicine, almost $12 billion of which was spent on an estimated 350 million visits to various practitioners (chiropractors, naturopaths, massage therapists, etc.) The remaining $28 billion was spent on non-vitamin “natural” products for self-care such as fish oils, plant extracts, glucosamine and chondroitin, etc. And that’s not all: on top of this, sales of vitamin and nutritional supplements have been estimated to constitute a further $30 billion annually.

And then, of course, there’s the awkward fact of its almost total lack of effectiveness.

Look at it this way: illness is the loneliest and most isolating of all journeys. In that bleak landscape, scientifically validated medicine is not just the best compass and the most reliable map; it’s also the truest friend any of us can have.

So, should alternative medicine be treated on a par with the traditional sort and taught in medical schools?

Not on your life.

9 Responses to Quackademia

  • Maybe it would be a way for doctors to better prepare for “fixing” the results of alternative medicine (maybe we should not even call it medicine).

    Still… no, future doctors have more important skills and knowledge to learn than hocus pocus wizard stuff.

    But maybe people that are proponent of this “alternative” should be barred the real thing. A bit of “survival of the fittest”. 🙂

  • Not an uninteresting idea: the next time prince charles is seriously ill, he is allowed only homeopathy.

  • People still believe in flat earth, astrology, all sorts of magic and a variety of religions with different one true gods so its no surprise that they can believe in alternative medicine. The fact that the placebo effect will show that some of the preparations appear to work is enough to generate the widespread belief that all must work and the modern medicine is more interested in money and guarding its turf when it criticizes alternative medicine. In the USA there has been the added problem that a large percentage were not covered by medical insurance although Obamacare may have changed this a little. When you can’t afford to go to the real doctor you have to resort to the alternative. As to the question of whether alternative medicine should be taugh in universities and given equivocal standing the answer has to be no. Teaching unscientific garbage is akin to teaching creationalism in science classes and should be resisted with vigor.

  • I’ve always made the analogy tat teaching alternative medicine to future doctors is like teaching creationism to future paleontologists; it might make sense from a historical perspective, or to prepare them for ideas they may have to challenge in practice, but it makes no sense as a preparation for their actual work.

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