I have published many articles on the risks of various alternative treatments (see for instance here, here, here, here, here and here) – not because I am alarmist but because I have always felt very strongly that, for a researcher into alternative medicine, the most important issue must be to make sure users of these therapies are as safe as possible. Usually I differentiated between direct and indirect risks. The former relate to the risks of the treatment and include, for instance, liver damage caused by a herbal remedy or stroke due to neck manipulation. The latter are mainly due to the poor, often irresponsible advice given by many therapists.
A recent article adopted the same terminology when reviewing the risks of alternative medicine specifically for cancer patients. As the indirect risks are often neglected, I will here quote the relevant section of this paper in full:
…Health care physicians and oncology experts have an ethical responsibility to initiate the communication regarding the use of complementary therapies with cancer patients. However, according to data obtained from this literature review, oncology doctors and physicians will discuss complementary therapies only when a patient him/herself raises this issue within a consultation. This passive attitude was linked to a lack of sufficient scientific evidence for positive outcomes of complementary therapies found in high quality randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Oncology nurses, on the other hand, sometimes actively promote complementary modalities that they find to correspond with their vision of holistic care.
According to the included studies, complementary providers often differ from conventional health care providers in their understanding of treatment concepts, philosophies and diagnostic procedures. This leads to different models of disease causality (cells, blood, nerves vs. energy, vital force, meridians) and treatment philosophy (reductionism vs. holism). As many complementary providers are philosophically oriented towards personal and spiritual growth, patients may feel guilty if the disease continues to advance despite the patients’ best spiritual and mental efforts. According to Broom and colleagues, such philosophies may also give patients false hope of recovery.
Another indirect risk connected to the combination of conventional and complementary treatment in cancer care is the lack of regulation and standardized education in many countries. Currently, there are, for example, no standard training requirements for complementary providers working in cancer care or any other health care setting in the EU. According to Mackareth et al., complementary providers in England need specific training to learn how to practice safely.
Moreover, there is a need for common medical terminology to bridge the communication gap between health care providers working outside the conventional health care system. Common medical terminology may reduce the existing communication gap between conventional and complementary providers about mutual patients. To minimize communication gap between physicians, oncology experts and complementary providers, a medical complementary record should include a treatment plan with conventional and complementary diagnosis, explanation of terminology, possible treatment interactions, description of the complementary treatment plan and goals. If possible, the quality of any complementary supplement given should be reported.
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As I said, I find it important to discuss the indirect risks of alternative medicine, and I am therefore pleased that the authors of this article addressed them. At the same time, I find their text remarkably tame.
Why are they not more open and forceful about what, after all, amounts to a serious public health issue? The answer might be simpler than expected: most of them are affiliated with the ‘National Research Center in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NAFKAM), UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway’. Could it be that open warnings about outright quackery is not what suits this unit?
So, what might be an open and frank approach to discussing the indirect risks of alternative medicine? In my view, it should make several points abundantly clear and transparent:
- Alternative practitioners (APs) are usually not trained to advise patients responsibly, particularly in cases serious disease.
- The training of APs is often inadequate and sometimes resembles more to brain-washing than to proper education.
- Consequently, APs often woefully over-estimate what their therapy can achieve.
- The patients of APs are often desperate and ready to believe even the tallest tales.
- APs have a huge conflict of interest – in order to make a living they need to treat as many patients as possible and are therefore not motivated to refer them to more suitable care.
- APs are frequently in denial when it comes to the risks of their treatments.
- APs are not educated such that they understand the full complexities of serious illness.
- As a result, APs far too often misguide their patients to make tragically wrong choices thus putting their health at serious risk.
- In most countries, the regulators turn a blind eye to this huge problem.
These are by no means trivial points, and they have nothing to do with a ‘turf war’ between conventional and alternative medicine. They relate to our ethical duty to keep our patients as safe as we can. It has been estimated that, in oncology alone, 1 – 5% of deaths are due to patients opting to have alternative instead of conventional treatments. This amounts to an unbearably high absolute number of patients dying prematurely due to the indirect risks of alternative medicine.
It is high time, I think, that we tackle this issue systematically and seriously.