On the occasion of a talk that I recently gave in Italy, I was interviewed by VANITY FAIR ITALY. I gave it in English and it was published in Italian. As I don’t expect many readers to be fluent in Italian and since it was a good interview, in my view, I thought I give you here the English original:
1.How can we exactly define «alternative medicine»?
There is much confusion and a plethora of definitions, none of which is fully satisfactory. In fact, the term “alternative medicine” itself is nonsensical: if a therapy works, it belongs to evidence-based medicine; and if it doesn’t work, it cannot possibly be an alternative. I therefore have long been calling it “so-called alternative medicine” (SCAM). The definition I use for SCAM with lay audiences is simple: SCAM is an umbrella term for a diverse range of therapeutic and diagnostic methods that have little in common, other than being excluded from mainstream medicine.
2.Who uses it and why?
Predominantly women! Statistics say about 30-70% of the general population use SCAM. And with patient populations, the percentage can be close to 100%. They use it because they are told over and over again that SCAM is natural and thus safe, as well as effective for all sorts of conditions.
3.Focusing on terminology, is there a difference between «complementary» and «alternative» medicine?
Theoretically, there is a big difference between «complementary» and «alternative» medicine. The former is supposed to be used as an add-on to, while the latter is a replacement of mainstream medicine. In practice, this dividing line is very blurred; most SCAMs are used in both ways, depending on the actual situation and circumstance.
4.Are users different from non-users?
Yes, there has been much research on this and my reading of it is that SCAM users tend to be less intelligent, more religious, more superstitious, less trusting in science, and more prone to conspiracy theories, for instance.
5.Which forms of alternative medicine are the most popular?
There are certain national differences, but in most European countries herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, homeopathy, aromatherapy, and reflexology are amongst the most popular SCAMs.
6.Does it work?
With such a wide range – someone once counted over 400 modalities and my last book evaluated 202 of them (Alternative Medicine: A Critical Assessment of 202 Modalities (Copernicus Books): Amazon.co.uk: Ernst, Edzard: 9783031107092: Books) – it is impossible to answer with yes or no. In addition we need to consider the conditions that are being treated. Acupuncture, for example, is touted as a panacea, but might just work for pain. If you take all this into account, I estimate that less than 3% of the therapeutic claims that are being made for SCAM are supported by sound evidence.
Is it safe?
Again, impossible to say. Some treatments are outright dangerous; for instance, chiropractic neck manipulations can injure an artery and the patient suffers a stroke of which she can even die. Other treatments are assumed to be entirely harmless; for example homeopathy. But even that is untrue: if a cancer patient relies exclusively on homeopathy for a cure, she might easily hasten her death. Sadly, such things happen not even rarely.
Do its benefits outweigh its risks?
That depends very much on the treatment, the disease, and the precise situation. Generally speaking, there are very few SCAMs that fulfill this condition.
You said that these were the research questions that occupied all your life in Exeter. Did you find the answers?
We published more on SCAM than any other research group, and we found mostly disappointing answers. But still, I am proud of having found at least some of the most pressing answers. Even negative answers can make an important contribution to our knowledge.
7.What is the problem with the placebo effect?
All therapies can prompt a placebo effect. Thus an ineffective treatment can easily appear to be effective through generating a placebo effect. This is why we need to rely on properly conducted, if possible placebo-controlled trials, if we want to know what works and what not.
8.Is it true that some alternative medicines can cause significant harm?
9.What about herbal remedies? What do studies show about them?
Many of our modern drugs originate from plants, Therefore, it is not surprising that we find herbal remedies that are effective. But careful! This also means that plants can kill you – think of hemlock, for instance. In addition herbal medicine can interact powerfully with synthetic drugs. So, it is wise to be cautious and get responsible advice.
10.Which alternative therapies are overrated and why?
In my view, almost all SCAMs are over-rated. If you go on the Internet, you find ~5 000 000 websites on SCAM. 99% of them try to sell you something and are unreliable or even dangerous. We need to be aware of the fact that SCAM has grown into a huge business and many entrepreneurs are out to get your money based on bogus claims.
11.On the contrary, which therapies could be seen as an integration in routine care?
The best evidence can be found in the realm of herbal medicine, for instance St John’s Wort. Some mind-body interventions can be helpful; also a few massage techniques might be worth a try. Not a lot, I’m afraid.
12.Would you tell us what happened in 2005 with Prince Charles?
He complained about my actions via his private secretary to my University. A 13 month investigation followed. At the end, I was found not guilty but my funding, my team, my infrastructure had been dismantled. So, in effect, Charles managed to close down what was the only research group that looked critically and systematically into SCAM. A sad story – not so much for me but for progress and science, I think.
3.Why is alternative medicine still a controversial subject?
Mainly because the gap between the claims and the evidence is so very wide – and getting wider all the time.
14.Would you suggest the «right way» to approach it?
I often recommend this: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! I might add that, if you want reliable advice, don’t listen to those who profit from giving it.