Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.
Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
- What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
- Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’ someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
- Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.” *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
- Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.
A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:
- Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
- New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
- Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
- Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
- Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
- Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.
Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.
*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.