MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

A recent US study found that belief in conspiracy theories is rife in health care. The investigators presented people with 6 different conspiracy theories, and the one that was most widely believed was the following:

THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION IS DELIBERATELY PREVENTING THE PUBLIC FROM GETTING NATURAL CURES FOR CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES BECAUSE OF PRESSURE FROM DRUG COMPANIES.

A total of 37% agreed with this statement, 31% had no opinion on the matter, and 32% disagreed. What is more, the belief in this particular conspiracy correlated positively with the usage of alternative medicine.

Essentially, this implies that the current popularity of alternative medicine is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by the FDA or more generally speaking ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of alternative treatments.

I think it was Woody Allen who noted that, just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not following you. So, let’s look for evidence suggesting that the FDA or any similar organisation is suppressing alternative medicine.

A prime candidate is, of course, the often implicated, thoroughly evil ‘BIG PHARMA‘. I am not a fan of the pharmaceutical industry and I know few people who are. But where is the evidence for BIG PHARMA’s conspiracy against alternative medicine? In the many years of researching this sector, I have never come across a jot of evidence to support this notion. On the contrary, BIG PHARMA seems all to keen to jump on to the alternative bandwagon and make a few quick bucks from the gullibility of the consumer.

What about the rest of the medical establishment? All I see is that universities, hospitals, charities and other organisations in health care currently bend over backwards in order to accommodate as much alternative medicine as they possibly can get away with in view of the often embarrassing lack of convincing evidence for the treatments in question. Conspiracy against alternative medicine? I don’t think so.

The closer we look, the more we arrive at the conclusion that the conspiracy against alternative medicine is a myth and a figment of the imagination of those who religiously believe in alternative medicine. They seem to long for an explanation why their favourite therapy is not in even more wide-spread use. Cognitive dissonance seems to prevent them to consider that the lack of evidence has anything to do with this situation. Consequently, they prefer to invent a conspiracy theory.

And this is where an interesting question emerges, in my view: do people who believe that the FDA or other organisations prevent the public from getting more alternative medicine really need more alternative medicine, or do they perhaps just need an effective treatment for their paranoia?

6 Responses to A conspiracy theory seems to be driving the popularity of alternative medicine

  • I’m not sure we need to look too far to see where and how conspiracy theories start and spread: Mike Adams, the Alt Medicine Purveyor Who Calls himself the 'Health Ranger,' Threatens to Sue Forbes and Writer

  • As a long-time participant in, and watcher of, alternate medicine, I agree that there’s no organizational conspiracy going on that prevents alternate medicine from being used.

    There IS a conspiracy of circumstances, that involves the FDA: you must have very strong evidence that something works for a given ailment before you can claim on the label that it works for a given ailment and the more severe the ailment, the more likely the FDA will enforce its regulations concerning unsubstantiated claims.

    This is, of course, a good thing.

    However, while Big Pharma is willing to pour many millions into research on a new pill, the alternative health industry, while pretty lucrative these days, doesn’t really have the resources to fund research at the same level that a pharmaceutical company might be willing to provide for a single pill.

    And the FDA model for medical research on pills applies to herbal treatments as I understand it: you must be able to identify an active ingredient (I guess for safety concerns) before you can get permission to do human testing. In ayurveda, some of the [allegedly] most powerful herbal preparations contain a dozen or more herbs. Trying to do an FDA-approved human trial on such a thing is effectively impossible, or at least, I’m not aware of any.

    .

    A more subtle issue involves meditation research. The recent American Heart Association statement on alternate treatments for hypertension called for head-to-head studies on meditation. But who pays for them? The US military and Office of Veterans Affairs are sponsoring research on meditation and PTSD, but don’t require head to head studies to make sure that one practice really is superior to another. This prevents anyone from truly determining what practice is better for what group of people and for what condition they might have.

    In this recent presentation by Robert Brook, lead author of that AHA statement, I asked the researchers about doing head-to-head studies on meditation as the AHA called for http://new.livestream.com/mum/brook (1:19:00). The response from both the TM researcher and Robert Brook, was “give us the funding, and we will.” Of course, the US military is willing to set policy without doing head-to-head studies on any program for any reason at all, as far as I can tell, and there’s no explicit funding available for such studies from any government body that I have heard of, so obviously no-one cares, which is its own “conspiracy of indifference.”

    • Thanks for your insightful comments, Lawson.

      I would like to add that Transcendental Meditation (TM) is definitely not recommended as a treatment for PTSD by any UK NHS Foundation Trust that I am aware of. Indeed, prescribing any form of meditation as the primary treatment for PTSD would be highly irresponsible because there are much better evidence-based treatments available.

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