MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

I published this article 20 years ago! Yet, it is, I think, still relevant today. For the purpose of this blog, I have altered it marginally (mainly by using the acromym SCAM):

Whatever SCAM is, it is not an alternative to conventional medicine. Nevertheless, one might still ask why so many people pay for ‘unproven’ SCAM when they can have scientifically backed medicine at no extra expense. Chandola et al suggest that 44% who use CM hope for a cure, 30% fear adverse effects of mainstream drugs, and 27% are dissatisfied with conventional care. In a much larger survey conducted in the USA, Astin found that dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine was prevalent but did not predict use of SCAM. SCAM users tended to be better educated and to subscribe to a more ‘holistic’ philosophy of healthcare. Interestingly, they reported poorer health status than non-users. Moreover, SCAM attracts patients because it offers more personal autonomy or control and is less impersonal or high-tech than mainstream medicine. Finally patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may simply try SCAM so as to leave no stone unturned.

‘Scientifically backed’ medicine may not be quite as helpful as one tends to assume at least not in the eyes of the patient. A survey of 1420 (mostly musculoskeletal) pain sufferers suggested that SCAMs were perceived as more successful than mainstream drugs. In fact, orthodox therapies such as parenteral injections and oral medications ranked only 8th and 11th, respectively. Perhaps more disturbingly, patients seem to experience the therapeutic encounter with SCAM practitioners as more satisfying, empathetic and informative than that with their general practitioners. While many physicians (rightly or wrongly) continue to see SCAM as a nuisance, maybe we should think again: SCAM’s popularity amounts to a biting criticism of mainstream medicine that ought to be taken seriously.

How are clinicians to reconcile the public demand for SCAM with the new zeal for evidence-based medicine? The apparently easy answer is to pursue a strategy of evidence-based SCAM. This is precisely what my department is doing. There are now about 2000 clinical trials in this diverse area. But clinical trials are often full of contradictions and seldom clarify clinical questions adequately. A US study, for instance, has contributed to increasing doubts about whether chiropractic is helpful for acute uncomplicated low back pain in a clinically relevant way. What we really need for informing clinicians’ decisions are systematic reviews incorporating the totality of the available data. For the past 5 years this has been the focus of my department’s work, and we have published a considerable number of such papers. The notion that SCAM is totally devoid of evidence is a cliché which, like many clichés, is not entirely true.

Undoubtedly, vast areas of uncertainty do remain. The more difficult question is, therefore, how should clinicians deal with their patients’ desire for SCAM in the absence of evidence? Embarrassingly few convincing answers are on offer. Physicians have become experts in dealing with uncertainty in many aspects of their work. A dose of common sense will usually go quite far. At the very least, doctors should know what type of treatments their patients are trying. Taking a detailed history should nowadays include asking specifically about use of SCAM. In order not to alienate patients, one should resist the temptation to be dismissive. If there are good reasons to warn of a certain form of SCAM, these are best offered in an objective manner. To give evidence-based advice, clinicians obviously have to be informed about the facts, and impartial information is hard to find. One ray of light in this relative darkness is the Cochrane Collaboration, which now has a ‘field’ working on SCAM. The number of systematic reviews available from the Cochrane database is growing rapidly.

Once a patient is using SCAM (with or against the doctor’s advice), it makes sense to monitor the effects. This increases the safety of the patient and contributes to the physician’s knowledge of and experience with SCAM. There is also a good argument for establishing working relationships with a selection of local SCAM therapists who have a good track record and adequate training. At present, communication between doctors and therapists is often poor or even non-existent. Surely this cannot be to the benefit of the patient.

For SCAM, the best chance of survival in a harsh climate of evidence-based medicine and increasing rationing of resources is to come up with the goods and demonstrate what treatments are effective, safe and cost-effective for which condition. For physicians, the best way of reconciling the ‘two worlds’ is to inform themselves adequately and guide their patients through the ‘SCAM maze’ with a generous helping of good common sense. For patients, last but not least, the best approach is to be cautious and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

END OF QUOTE

Twenty years, and little has changed:

  1. There still are vast areas of uncertainty.
  2. Imparcial information about SCAM is still scarce.
  3. Patient demand for SCAM is still considerable.
  4. The implied criticism of conventional medicine is still not taken seriously.
  5. The communication between doctors and SCAM practitioners is still lamentable.
  6. Most doctors still do not include questions about SCAM in their medical history taking.
  7. Arguably, SCAM has become even less evidence-based.
  8. Most doctors remain blissfully uninformed about SCAM.
  9. Most of the claims made for SCAM are too good to be true.
  10.  …
  11. etc.

I think you get the gist.

10 Responses to So-called alternative medicine (SCAM): if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

  • Hi, I recently found your blog and I like it very much. Thank you for all your effort in supplying the public with reliable information!
    I am somewhat of an odd case when it comes to CAM (or more acurately, SCAM as you call it), since I’ve been surfing alternative therapies for more than 30 years now. I am a radiologist actually, and of course my field of work relies on very specific tools, aka evidence based medicine. So obviously neither I or my patients have any use for extra-curricular ideas in my daily practice. Rather, I like to experiment with myself. I have a long, long history of depression that has got somewhat better with time, and that, along with my religious beliefs, rose my interest in stuff as meditation, acupunture, aromatherapy, indigenous/traditional practices, and phytotherapy. And a few others that I didn’t like at all (such as spiritualism and systemic constellations). From observing myself, I came to think it’s more likely that patients will seek SCAM out of feelings of desperation, existential pain, loneliness and such. Also I think they can be heavily influenced by family and friends.
    Do you know if there’s any data concerning depression and alternative approaches to psychiatry?

  • @Lucianda Malta

    You might also want to google Vegas Nerve Stimulation

  • You got me on the SCAM word there. But some of doctor’s prescribed medicine is ineffective to which lead the patient to seek alternatives

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