‘The use of a harmless alternative therapy is not necessarily wrong. Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it can help many patients. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject such therapies simply because they are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence’.
How often have I heard this notion in one or another form?
I hear such words almost every day.
Arguments along these lines are difficult to counter. Any attempt to do so is likely to make us look blinkered, high-handed and less than compassionate.
Yet we all – well almost all – know that the notion is wrong. Not only that, it can be dangerous.
I will try to explain this with a concrete example of a patient employing a harmless alternative remedy with great success… until… well, you’ll see.
The patient is a married women with two kids. She is well known to her doctor because she has suffered from a range of symptoms for years, and the doctor – despite extensive tests – could never find anything really wrong with her. He knows about his patient’s significant psychological problems and has, on occasion, been tempted to prescribe tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Before he does so, however, he tells her to try Rescue Remedies@ (homeopathically diluted placebos from the range of Bach Flower Remedies). The patient is generally ‘alternatively inclined’, seems delighted with this suggestion and only too keen to give it a try.
After a couple of weeks, she reports that the Rescue Remedies (RR) are helping her. She says she can cope much better with stressful situations and has less severe and less frequent headaches or other symptoms. As she embarks on a long period of taking RR more or less regularly, she becomes convinced that the RR are highly effective and uses them whenever needed with apparent success. This goes on for months, and everyone is happy: the patient feels she has finally found a ‘medication that works’, and the doctor (who knows only too well that RR are placebos) is pleased that his patient is suffering less without needing real medication.
Then, a few months later, the patient notices that the RR are becoming less and less effective. Not only that, she also thinks that her headaches have changed and are becoming more intense. As she has been conditioned to believe that the RR are highly effective, she continues to take them. Her doctor too agrees and encourages her to carry on as before. But the pain gets worse and worse. When she develops other symptoms, her doctor initially tries to trivialise them, until they cannot be trivialised any longer. He eventually sends her to a specialist.
The patient has to wait a couple of weeks until an appointment can be arranged. The specialist orders a few tests which take a further two weeks. Finally, he diagnoses a malignant, possibly fast growing brain tumour. The patient has a poor prognosis but nevertheless agrees to an operation. Thereafter, she is paralysed on one side, needs 24-hour care, and dies 4 weeks post-operatively.
The surgeon is certain that, had he seen the patient several months earlier, the prognosis would have been incomparably better and her life could have been saved.
I suspect that most seasoned physicians have encountered stories which are not dissimilar. Fortunately they often do not end as tragically as this one. We tend to put them aside, and the next time the situation arises where a patient reports benefit from a bogus treatment we think: ‘Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it might help. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject this ‘feel-good factor’.
I hope my story might persuade you that this notion is not necessarily correct.
If you are unable to make your patient feel better without resorting to quackery, my advice is to become a pathologist!!!