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

There are uncounted different forms of bogus so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs), and many have been discussed on this blog. What do I mean by ‘bogus’? A bogus SCAM is one, in my view, that is being promoted for conditions for which it does not demonstrably generate more good than harm.

Ten popular examples are:

  • alternative cancer ‘cures’,
  • applied kinesiology,
  • Bach Flower Remedies,
  • CEASE,
  • chiropractic,
  • detox treatments,
  • homeopathy,
  • osteopathy,
  • paranormal or energy healing techniques,
  • slimming aids.

These treatments are diverse in many ways: history, basic assumption, risks, etc. But they nevertheless tend to have certain features in common:

  1. Most SCAMs originate from the ideas developed by a single, often charismatic individual who proclaimed to have seen the light. Think of Gerson, Bach, Palmer, Hahnemann, Still.
  2. They are recommended by enthusiasts as a panacea, a ‘cure all’.
  3. They are heavily promoted by celebrities, hyped by the press and marketed via books or the Internet, but they are far less or not at all supported by published studies in the peer-reviewed medical literature.
  4. The clinical trials of SCAM that have been published are flimsy, lack independent replication, yet are celebrated by proponents as though they represent robust evidence.
  5. SCAMs target either the most desperately ill patients who understandably tend to cling to every straw they can find. Or they go for the ‘worried well’ who have nothing truly wrong with them and plenty of cash to waste.
  6. Proponents of SCAM use scientific-sounding terminology, while simultaneously displaying a profoundly anti-scientific attitude.
  7. Entrepreneurs of SCAM are efficient at selling false hope at excessive prices.
  8. SCAMs sometimes seem to work because many of the therapists are skilled at maximising the placebo-response.
  9. SCAM is awash with conspiracy theories, for instance, the notion that ‘the establishment’ is supressing SCAM. (If a SCAM ever showed real promise, it would rapidly scrutinised by researchers and, if effectiveness were confirmed, adopted by conventional medicine. The notion of an alternative cure for any disease is idiotic, because it presupposes that conventional healthcare professionals shun a potentially valuable treatment simply because it emerged from elsewhere.)
  10. Most SCAMs can do direct harm. For instance, oral treatments can be toxic or interact with prescription drugs. Or spinal manipulations can cause a stroke. Or acupuncture can cause a pneumothorax.
  11. SCAMs are dangerous even if they do not cause direct harm. There are many examples of people who died needlessly early because they used SCAM as an alternative to conventional medicine (Steve Jobs is a prominent example).
  12. Moreover, SCAMs cause harm by undermining the principles of EBM and, more importantly, by undermining rational thinking in our society.
  13. SCAM practitioners violate fundamental rules of medical ethics on a daily basis. One could even argue that the ethical practice of SCAM is rarely possible.

 

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