Doctors Who Care: Does Alternative Medicine Work?
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Medical centers are lining up to establish research clinics so that they can take NIH funding for alternative-medicine studies, Salzberg adds. Aggressive marketing of these clinics can also generate substantial patient demand (even a small integrative clinic can take in several million dollars a year). The anecdotal testimony these patients offer merely reflects their gullibility and self-selection into alternative care; subjective symptoms like pain and discomfort, he notes, are susceptible to the power of suggestion. These same symptoms also tend to be cyclical, meaning that people who see a practitioner when their symptoms flare up are likely to see the symptoms moderate, no matter what the practitioner does or doesn’t do. Patients simply misattribute the improvement to the treatment.
The biggest danger of all, Salzberg says, is that patients who see alternative practitioners will stop getting mainstream care altogether: “The more time they spend getting fraudulent treatments, the less time they’ll spend getting treatments that work and that could save their lives.”
It’s not hard to see alternative medicine as a dubious business, or even, in some part, a scam, if one includes all the supplements, devices, and patently absurd therapies that are hawked in magazines and infomercials. Anyone can make vague health claims for almost any reasonably safe product with the appropriate fine print—“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has neither evaluated nor approved the claims for this product,” for instance. And so the public snatches up millions of hologrammed silicone bracelets that promise to revitalize the fatigued.
Most homeopaths, acupuncturists, and herbalists don’t have an MD and don’t work under the supervision of a physician, so they are free to make exaggerated claims or offer ungrounded advice. It’s difficult to get too worked up about teenagers dropping 20 bucks on a hip but medically useless bracelet, but we should all feel uncomfortable hearing about children with autism being pulled out of behavioral therapy and placed into herbal or spinal-manipulation treatment. About 40 percent of Americans have tried some form of complementary or alternative medicine, and some $35 billion a year is spent on it. A certain amount of abuse seems like a given.
Concerns of outright malpractice or naked hucksterism appear grossly misplaced when they are applied to a clinic like Berman’s. Nonetheless, says Salzberg, the bottom line is that studies clearly show that alternative medicine simply doesn’t work. The scientific literature is replete with careful studies that show, again and again, that virtually all of the core treatments plied by alternative practitioners help patients no more than do “sham” treatments designed to fool patients into thinking they’re getting the treatment when they’re really not. (Even acupuncture can be faked, by tapping the skin in random places with a metal tube; reliably, these taps produce treatment results identical to those of the needles themselves.) “Acupuncture is just a 3,000-year-old relative of bloodletting,” Salzberg told me.
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