MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

A new survey from the Frazer Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank, suggests that more and more Canadians are using alternative therapies. In 2016, massage was the most common type of therapy that Canadians used over their lifetime with 44 percent having tried it, followed by chiropractic care (42%), yoga (27%), relaxation techniques (25%), and acupuncture (22%). Nationally, the most rapidly expanding therapies over the past two decades or so (rate of change between 1997 and 2016) were massage, yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic care, osteopathy, and naturopathy. High dose/mega vitamins, herbal therapies, and folk remedies appear to be in declining use over that same time period.

“Alternative treatments are playing an increasingly important role in Canadians’ overall health care, and understanding how all the parts of the health-care system fit together is vital if policymakers are going to find ways to improve it,” said Nadeem Esmail, Fraser Institute senior fellow and co-author of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Use and Public Attitudes, 1997, 2006 and 2016.

The updated survey of 2,000 Canadians finds more than three-quarters of Canadians — 79 per cent — have used at least one complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) or therapy sometime in their lives. That’s an increase from 74 per cent in 2006 and 73 per cent in 1997, when two previous similar surveys were conducted. In fact, more than one in two Canadians (56 per cent) used at least one complementary or alternative medicine or therapy in the previous 12 months, an increase from 54 per cent in 2006 and 50 per cent in 1997.

And Canadians are using those services more often, averaging 11.1 visits in 2016, compared to fewer than nine visits a year in both 2006 and 1997. In total, Canadians spent $8.8 billion on complementary and alternative medicines and therapies last year, up from $8 billion (inflation adjusted) in 2006.

The majority of respondents — 58 per cent — support paying for alternative treatments privately and don’t want them included in provincial health plans. Support for private payment is even highest (at 69 per cent) among 35- to 44-year-olds. “Complementary and alternative therapies play an increasingly important role in Canadians’ overall health care, but policy makers should not see this as an invitation to expand government coverage — the majority of Canadians believe alternative therapies should be paid for privately,” Esmail said.

This seems to be a good survey, and it offers a host of interesting information. Yet, it also leaves many pertinent questions unanswered. The most important one might be WHY?

Why are so many people trying treatments which clearly are unproven or disproven?

Enthusiasts would obviously say this is because they are useful in some way. I would, however, point out that the true reason might well be that consumers are systematically mislead about the value of alternative therapies, as I have shown on this blog so many times.

Nevertheless, this seems to be a good survey – there are hundreds, if not thousands of surveys in the realm of alternative medicine which are of such deplorable quality that they do not deserve to be published at all – but even with a relatively good survey, we need to be cautious. For instance, I have no difficulty designing a questionnaire that would guarantee a result of 100% prevalence of alternative medicine usage. All I would need to do is to include the following two questions:

  • Have you ever used plant-based products for your well-being or comfort?
  • Have you ever prayed while being ill?

Drinking a cup of tea would already have to prompt a positive reply to the 1st question. And if you answer yes to the 2nd question, it would be interpreted as using prayer as a therapy.

I think, I rest my case.

15 Responses to Canada’s love affair with alternative medicine

  • Interesting that most CAM users want to pay for it out of their own pockets and not load it onto the public health system. Perhaps they don’t think of CAM as medicine, but as complementary and alternative TO medicine?

    This would argue against the integration of CAM and actual medicine. 🙂

  • The Fraser Institute calls itself non-partisan, but in reality it is considered quite conservative and libertarian. I’m not surprised people want to pay for it in their survey because their position is one of “health feedom”. There’s a push from the right to move away from socialized medicine, to a two-tiered system where people can pay for access. So alt-med appeals to their desire to take control.

    • I can see that FI’s position is market-lead medicine. Are you saying that the majority of CAM users share the same mind-set?

      I don’t buy that.

      My satirical suggestion doesn’t hold water either. The report shows that CAM users believe there has to be something to CAM, even if science can’t find any evidence for it, because it’s been around for such a long time.

      Possibly users feel open-minded (pitifully so) about CAM, but want scientific confirmation that it works before public funding. They don’t know or haven’t yet accepted that science has shown the emperor is wearing no clothes.

  • While this is personal experience, i.e. just an anecote, I am confronted with this love for alternology almost every day here in Toronto. Genuine doctors seem to be so enamoured with it that they actually recommend completely unproven products to their patients.
    On the other hand, I also know someone who prefers quacks to doctors because genuine doctors sometimes make mistakes while quacks are sometimes right. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that there is something quite wrong with this type of irrational thinking. I have been unable to make that clear to her, after more than 10 years of trying, even though she is piling up the failures. It is so sad.

  • Yoga (exercise,) massage, and relaxation are not ‘alternative therapies.’ As long as you ignore the nonsense that camsters lard onto them they are all scientifically based therapies with rational measures of efficacy. Any organization that lumps them in together, unqualified, with outright frauds like homeopathy, acupuncture, naturopathy, and chiropractic care is simply muddying the issue and not credible.

    • @jag

      “As long as you ignore the nonsense that camsters lard onto them they are all scientifically based therapies with rational measures of efficacy.” Please do provide the backup data for this statement. These are probably just “the nonsense that camsters lard onto them”: yoga, massage, relaxation.

      I look forward to links to the prospective, randomized, double-blind clinical trials demonstrating efficacy. (And BTW, I’m happy to accept that all three provide tender, loving care, which is always a boon to patients.)

    • Yoga (exercise,) massage, and relaxation are not ‘alternative therapies.’

      On what is this claim based?
      Yoga, to the best of my knowledge, is a series of systems supposed to bring enlightenment, not ‘exercise’. That claim is made by Westerners eager to profit from ignorant hipsters with more money than sense.

      • @jag explicitly specified the *exercise* part of yoga. The Cochrane Library has a number of systematic reviews of the evidence for yoga for treatment of a number of conditions. Some show no evidence of improvements, some show weak-to-moderate evidence of small improvements. Perhaps the strongest conclusion I saw was for Carpal Tunnel: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003219/full

        There are many reviews of massage there, but I sampled about 10 of them, and they didn’t find strong evidence for much at all. (This surprised me – I thought massage would make people subjectively feel better, even if it had no effect on the cause of their symptoms.)

        Cochrane also has machine reviews about relaxation techniques. I sampled 3 of them (e.g. for depression and preventing occupational stress) and the theme seemed to be “better than nothing, but not as good as alternatives”.

  • Edzard

    “When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”

    Does this explain your campaign against alternative medicine?

    (https://wakeup-world.com/2014/09/12/10-reasons-to-love-your-homeopath/)

    • if there ever was an idiotic comment, it must be this one!

      • Edzard

        What did you find idiotic: the comment or the write up?

        The comment was by Martin Niemöller. He was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, despite his ardent nationalism.

        The write up was by Tracy Kolenchuk. He comments here.

        Or you found the comment a reflection upon you? (Social democrats, Jews etc can be replaced with homeopathy, Chinese medicine etc and Nazi stands for writers for scientific medicine.)

        • @Iqbal Krishna on Thursday 27 April 2017 at 09:30

          “What did you find idiotic: the comment or the write up?”

          Both. I haven’t ever had high regard for you but you have now plummeted to the depths of idiocy.

          You should study Logical Fallacies, and, perhaps and hopefully, you won’t post as many utterly stupid comments. You can start with False Equivalency.

          Tracy Kolenchuk only distinguishes himself by the bone-headedness of his website; a total moron with considerable self-affection.

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