Some people are strong advocates of alternative medicine. They believe that western medical practice is a big conspiracy designed to keep patients hooked on medication, keeping the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical and healthcare industry thriving. They are the ones who cry that vaccination causes autism, and promote treatments such as “cleansing,” “detoxification,” “strengthening the immune system,” and so forth. They argue that modern medicine and vitamins is laden with “chemicals” that harm your body.
On the last point, I would gently remind these people that every single thing in our universe is a chemical and just because someone uses the chemical name of an ingredient in a product label doesn’t make it more lethal than using the common name. “Ascorbic acid,” for example, sounds like it would burn through your intestines while “Natural Vitamin C” sounds a little friendlier (more so if you add the phrase “from organic sources”) although both really amount to the same thing.
A few years ago, an article came out in the Durand Express, a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan, stating that a harmful chemical called dihydrogen oxide or DHMO had been found in the city’s water pipes. Other articles (and an entire website – www.dhmo.org) came out citing the prevalence and dangers of DHMO, which was in almost every product on the market, but rarely cited in the ingredients. It was one big conspiracy.
A careful and mildly scientifically literate reader, would of course, have picked up the joke early on. Dihydrogen means two parts of hydrogen. Monoxide means one part of oxygen. Combine the two and you have a chemical formula you have probably seen before you were 10 years old — that of water. Oh, and the Durand Express article came out on April Fools day.
This story is reportedly used by science educators to encourage critical thinking. At least, I hope that our science educators are doing that. If they themselves fell for that trick, well, let’s just say my reaction to that is not fit for print.
Going back to alternative treatments, there are doctors, on the other hand, who refuse to consider them at all. They think all these “herbal nonsense” is bunk and unscientific, and all its practitioners are unscrupulous individuals out to deceive their patients and milk them dry. As a side note, the “natural remedies” business is also a multi-billion dollar industry with its own set of practitioners and subspecialties that can rival the status quo.
So what do I believe and where do I stand? I find that my stand on this is very similar to my stand on religion. I think there is some middle ground to be found — some might argue that it’s not so middle — but nonetheless, I think there is something genuine in alternative medicine, but I tend to err always on the side of scientific inquiry.
There is indeed a lot of bunk, hype and deception going on in the alternative healthcare industry. Magnet care, radio wave care, and such exotic sounding therapies have been scientifically refuted by cancer research groups such as the American Cancer Society. Many herbal products have also been found not to contain the herbs they are supposed to contain, but powdered substitutes such as rice and weeds.
On the other hand, I also find a lot of sincere individuals who really believe they are doing something good and that they are providing real care and service. I also personally know people who have benefitted from such care and not just in a very subjective, “I feel better” kind of way, but backed up by improved laboratory results and doctors’ evaluations.
A recent article by oncologist Dr. Ranjana Srivastava in The Guardian UK, laments the fact that there is virtually no communication or collaboration between medical doctors and alternative therapy providers. At first, she seems angered by the fact that a lot of alternative “doctors” are hijacking her patients. She states, “Research shows that nearly 70% of cancer patients and a staggering 90% of patients enrolled in an early phase clinical trial use alternative therapies. We now know that many of these therapies are not only unhelpful but are downright dangerous. Herbs and supplements can interact with chemotherapy and reduce its efficacy, a real drawback when therapy is given with curative intent.”
However, one discovers at the end that she is advocating the removal of alternative medicine, but only to implement better regulatory practices and to have a genuine dialogue. She concludes: “But the point of many alternative therapies seems to be in their secret powers of healing. I know it’s often said but I honestly don’t consider arrogance a good explanation for why oncologists and alternative practitioners don’t talk. I would, however, say that dismay and distrust feature heavily. As does the troubling realisation that a doctor can face reprimand for inadvertent error but an alternative practitioner can get away with intentional harm.
This is not a reason to excuse the former but to regulate the latter. Perhaps this would make it easier to follow the advice that doctors need to familiarise themselves with the various forms of complementary and alternative medicines. It is conceivable that some worthwhile measures are tainted by the same brush as a lot of fraudulent ones.”
It is quite easy to pick one side over another and defend it to death. It is much more difficult to open yourself to the possibility that there is something to be learned from the other side as well, and it is difficult because the process is messy, time-consuming and involves a lot of humility, listening, unlearning and critical thinking.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.