MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

One of the most gratifying aspect of my work in Exeter was being able to offer posts to visiting researchers from across the world. Some of these co-workers, after returning to their home countries, became prominent scientists in their own right, and quite a few remained in contact and continued to collaborate with me or with members of my team. In one of these collaborative projects, we wanted to investigate adverse events attributed to traditional medical treatments in the Republic of Korea.

For this purpose, we reviewed adverse events recorded in the Republic of Korea, between 1999 and 2010, by the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Agency or the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine. Records of adverse events attributed to the use of traditional medical practices, including reports of medicinal accidents and consumers’ complaints, were evaluated.

Overall, 9624 records of adverse events were identified. Liver problems after the administration of herbal medicines were the most frequently reported adverse events. Only eight of the adverse events were recorded by the pharmacovigilance system run by the Food and Drug Administration. Of the 9624 events, 1389 – mostly infections, cases of pneumothorax and burns – were linked to physical therapies (n = 285) or acupuncture/moxibustion (n = 1104).

We concluded that traditional medical practices often appear to have adverse effects, yet almost all of the adverse events attributed to such practices between 1999 and 2010 were missed by the national pharmacovigilance system. The Consumer Agency and the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine should be included in the national pharmacovigilance system.

The assumption that alternative treatments are entirely harmless is widespread, not least because it is incessantly promoted via millions of web-site, thousands of books, newspaper articles, VIPs like Prince Charles etc. etc. Consumers are incessantly being told that NATURAL = SAFE. Yet, if we look closely, most alternative treatments are not natural and, as this investigation demonstrates, they are certainly not devoid of risks.

I already see the apologists preparing to comment that, compared to conventional therapies, alternative treatments are very safe. So let me pre-empt this fallacy by pointing out (yet again) that 1) in the absence of adequate surveillance systems, nobody can say how frequent adverse-effects of alternative treatments really are, and that 2) even severe adverse effects can normally be tolerated, if the treatment in question has been shown to be efficacious.

So, instead of commenting on my repeated reports about the risks of alternative medicine, I invite, in fact, I challenge my critics to answer this simple question: For how many alternative therapies is there a well-documented positive risk/benefit balance?

5 Responses to MORE GOOD THAN HARM? I herewith challenge my critics

  • I think that your work is really useful – even if I disagree with some of your findings— it certainly provides data which can be evaluated using logic and ( right) reason. I also think that your bias has a philosophical basis widespread in the academias in the EU and in the US and has to do with rational skepticism —unfortunately not very compatible with the mathematical and Aristotelean logic.

    Regarding your question :

    It depends on what exactly you mean by “alternative” medicine. Every quack can claim whatever s/he wants.

    There are several studies reporting positive ( or other negative) side effects on Homeopathy which they do NOT report adverse side effects or very few and not serious.

    One would expect that they would report it if they had observed them. For lower potencies it might be the case – but this NOT the typical homeopathic remedy homeopaths describe and if the homeopath is a MD then most indirect side effects ( wrong diagnosis etc ) must be rare.

    For the alt medicine requires some research meaning $$$$$- or euros.

    Naturally people believe that it is safer to use valerian pills to promote deep sleep than sleeping pills – I don’t blame them.

    Do you?

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