Arianne Shahvisi is a lecturer in Ethics and Medical Humanities at the Brighton & Sussex Medical School. She has long had an interest is so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – see here, for instance. Now she has published another most intriguing paper.
In it, she explains that scientific medicine (SM) neglects the needs of women relative to those of men. Subsequently she discusses the many limitations of SCAM and describe concerns about its use. Despite SCAM’s shortcommings, it is the domain of women who not only use it more frequently than men but also tend to be the practitioners practising SCAM. Arianne Shahvisi argues that, despite being chosen by women in reaction to the shortcomings of SM, SCAM cannot offer greater patient autonomy and is more liable to be exploitative.
Here conclusions are unusually long and I provide them here in full (after changing her abbreviation ‘AM’ to mine ‘SCAM’):
Within this paper I have made the following argument: SM is patriarchal and under-serves women; women dominate SCAM, both as users and service providers; women who choose SCAM often cite dissatisfaction with SM and the desire for greater autonomy and personalization within the clinical encounter. Based on these premises, it is likely that women use SCAM because it promises to offer greater autonomy and personalization than SM. This segues into a second argument: autonomy in healthcare requires informed consent; informed consent is not possible for SCAM therapies since mechanisms are either not known or not plausible, and there is no evidence base. These premises entail that SCAM cannot help patients to realize autonomy. Combining these two conclusions, it seems that SCAM does not offer the control and autonomy that is sought. Whilst it may be argued that SCAM offers personalization and a satisfactory therapeutic encounter, it must also be noted that forfeiting an evidence base, plausible mechanisms, and the ability to make autonomous decisions is a heavy loss to patients and one for which SM must take some responsibility.
I have attempted to motivate each of the above premises in the preceding sections. In this section I reflect on the implications of these conclusions and make recommendations to ensure that women’s health needs are more adequately met.
First, to the extent that rejection of SM may be seen as a form of resistance, the cost of that resistance is borne largely by the resistors themselves. Those who begin witha sense of dissatisfaction with SM—in many cases stemming from SM’s failure to provide them with adequate healthcare or to inspire trust in its own decency—end up with healthcare that is on many counts less adequate.
With the ascendance of a post-factual culture, arguments relying on evidence, reproducibility, and consistency are liable to have ever less traction. By corollary, the features that have typically worked against SCAM—its lack of an evidence base—are likely to pose less of a barrier to its uptake. This ought to be a grave public health concern, since the well-being of entire populations depends on medicine earning and retaining the trust of all. To see this, one need only consider how easily herd immunity is lost when trust in vaccination is undermined, putting entire populations at risk of disease outbreaks (Casidayetal.2006). Recommending against vaccination is common amongst SCAM practitioners (especially within chiropractic, homoeopathy, and naturopathy) whose philosophies so often rely on emphasizing, and in many cases overstating, iatrogenic risk (Ernst 2001).
Not much can be done now to atone for medicine’s history except to openly accept its shortcomings and under take particular effortS to re-engage marginal health populations. While it is easy to suggest that researchers should be devoting more time to women’s health issues and their treatments, the bench-to-bedside timeline is long, and more immediate efforts are also necessary. As Ernst (2010) has noted, concentrating on the therapeutic relationship within SM seems like the most constructive way forward. Although patients often look to SM for the ‘science of medicine’, clearly many are turning to SCAM for the ‘art of medicine^ (Ernst 2010, 1473)—for a compassionate clinical encounter in which patients are humanized and power differentials are flattened. While SM may have the upper hand in terms of mechanisms, an evidence base, and social capital, there are inadequacies in the patient–practitioner relationship, and in this respect there is much to learn from SCAM modalities, where the therapeutic relationship is key to their appeal. Even the most resolute SCAM user inevitably encounters SM professionals on occasion. Provided broader pressures on health workers permit them the time and space, those encounters present the possibility of demonstrating that SM can be person-centred, equitable, and sensitive to the differential needs of marginalized patient groups.
As I described in section 4, many of those who choose SCAM do so following a long period of unsatisfactory encounters with medical professionals as they pursue the treatment or resolution of long-term chronic ailments (Furnham and Vincent 2000; Cant and Sharma 2004). The majority of these patients are women. While SCAM practitioners are unlikely to offer therapies that are effective beyond placebo, they are able to offer consultations which are longer, more participatory, and more personalized. It is likely that most of the placebo effect is interpersonal and stems from the ritual of healing within encounters with practitioners, rather than from any specific therapy (Miller et al. 2009). There is some evidence that open label placebos still confer a placebo effect, which suggests that the therapeutic relationship plays a significant role (Kaptchuk et al. 2010). In light of these insights, Blease (2012) suggests that the placebo effect instead be referred to as the ‘positive care effect’. Given the importance of communication and autonomy amongst patients choosing SCAM, it is interesting to note that a surgical study shows that the extent of the positive care effect is contingent on the quality of the clinical encounter, with communication skills aimed at empowering patients being predictive of better clinical outcomes (Trummer et al. 2006).
Focusing on the U.K. healthcare system, I therefore recommend that general practitioners, who are the gatekeepers of the medical profession, make efforts to address the inadequacies in the clinical encounter, specifically for those with long-term health conditions or medically unexplained symptoms. As it stands, general practitioners in the United Kingdom spend ten minutes with each patient and are encouraged to focus on a single health issue. It is therefore unsurprising to note that dissatisfaction with the clinical encounter is shared by clinicians. In a recent survey, 55 per cent of general practice surgeries in the United Kingdom reported concerns about the quality of care they could provide and described their workload as unmanageable most of the time; 13 per cent reported that it was unmanageable all of the time (Iacobucci 2016). In another study, 68 percent of general practitioners expressed the view that care could be improved by longer, higher-quality consultations, while 67 percent felt that patients with long-term conditions should be afforded longer consultations (Rimmer 2015). It has been demonstrated that longer consultation times correlate with a greater likelihood of taking a thorough medical history and conducting examinations in accordance with good practice, a lower prescribing rate, a greater likelihood of offering advice about preventative healthcare, and fewer follow-up consultations (Wilson and Childs 2002).
General practitioners are currently able to make referrals to specialists in various clinical disciplines. In addition to lengthening standard consultation times, the option of making general referrals may be a constructive way forward, i.e. arranging for the patient to have a lengthier consultation with a general practitioner rather than being siloed into a specialist referral (which is liable to be an even less holistic encounter) or sent away. Given the importance of the therapeutic encounter, it is also worth considering increasing the number of talking therapies referrals for long-term physical health problems. As it stands, talking therapies are recommended within the U.K. National Health Service for a range of social, mental, and physical conditions. This could be broadened, so that those whose physical symptoms are not being satisfactorily resolved within the biomedical paradigm are able to benefit from a personalized therapeutic relationship which does not rely on implausible mechanisms (NHS Choices 2016).
That women may be less likely to benefit from medicine and therefore more likely to spend time and money seeking therapies whose claims are questionable, whose benefits are negligible, and whose potential for exploitation is considerable, is a grave matter. Researchers and clinicians must take responsibility by consciously modernizing biomedicine to ensure that its goods are accessible to all and that the benefits of a positive therapeutic encounter are acknowledged and prioritized in the delivery of care.
One does not need to be a feminist to see that Arianne Shahvisi is correct in her line of arguing. Her insights are important and very well-put. Yet, they represent merely one aspect of SCAM, and there are many others. For instance, many consumers are not motivated to try SCAM by a disenchantment with SM. In fact, most of the research shows that this is not the main reason for becoming a SCAM proponent.
But, whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that those who subscribe to SCAM are getting a poor bargain. Arianne Shahvisi is therefore entirely correct in demanding that SM has to get its act together to avoid this from happening. I must have written and said it hundreds of times: whatever SCAM is, it is a poignant criticism of SM which must be used constructively for improving SM.