The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Alternative “Medicine” Quackery Goes Mainstream

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 10, 2009

Since I’m on a kick about alt-med lately, let me just throw one more thing into the mix… a recent news story about how alt-med quackery has gone mainstream:

AP IMPACT: Alternative medicine goes mainstream

The news article is very revealing in its analysis of how pseudoscientific nonsense such as reiki, touch therapy, and “natural” herbal supplements have wormed their way into the medical profession over the years.  One of the big reasons is due to a political push…

Fifteen years ago, Congress decided to allow dietary and herbal supplements to be sold without federal Food and Drug Administration approval. The number of products soared, from about 4,000 then to well over 40,000 now.

Ten years ago, Congress created a new federal agency to study supplements and unconventional therapies. But more than $2.5 billion of tax-financed research has not found any cures or major treatment advances, aside from certain uses for acupuncture and ginger for chemotherapy-related nausea. If anything, evidence has mounted that many of these pills and therapies lack value.

Of course, the irony is that despite the fact that the evidence suggests there is nothing to the vast majority of this wanna-be medical woo, so many people – including some doctors & health professionals – continue to use it.  Here’s some of the reasoning behind the promotion of this nonsense…

At one of the nation’s top trauma hospitals, a nurse circles a patient’s bed, humming and waving her arms as if shooing evil spirits. Another woman rubs a quartz bowl with a wand, making tunes that mix with the beeping monitors and hissing respirator keeping the man alive.

They are doing Reiki therapy, which claims to heal through invisible energy fields. The anesthesia chief, Dr. Richard Dutton, calls it “mystical mumbo jumbo.” Still, he’s a fan.

“It’s self-hypnosis” that can help patients relax, he said. “If you tell yourself you have less pain, you actually do have less pain.”

Alternative medicine has become mainstream. It is finding wider acceptance by doctors, insurers and hospitals like the shock trauma center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Consumer spending on it in some cases rivals that of traditional health care.

People turn to unconventional therapies and herbal remedies for everything from hot flashes and trouble sleeping to cancer and heart disease. They crave more “care” in their health care. They distrust drug companies and the government. They want natural, safer remedies.

So part of the public acceptance to alt-med can be summed up as a desire for less cold & clinical treatment, which is apparently offset by the vapid warm fuzzies that various peddlers of alt-med woo foist off upon the gullible.  And another part plays to the inherent distrust that many people have of big pharmaceutical & insurance companies – which feeds directly into the conspiracy theories about Big Pharma so often put forward by woo-meisters.

But, sadly, it looks as if not only are people being duped by all this alt-med nonsense, but sometimes they are actually endangering their health.  Here’s why…

… Government actions and powerful interest groups have left consumers vulnerable to flawed products and misleading marketing.

Dietary supplements do not have to be proved safe or effective before they can be sold. Some contain natural things you might not want, such as lead and arsenic. Some interfere with other things you may be taking, such as birth control pills.

“Herbals are medicines,” with good and bad effects, said Bruce Silverglade of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Contrary to their little-guy image, many of these products are made by big businesses. Ingredients and their countries of origin are a mystery to consumers. They are marketed in ways that manipulate emotions, just like ads for hot cars and cool clothes. Some make claims that average people can’t parse as proof of effectiveness or blather, like “restores cell-to-cell communication.”

Even therapies that may help certain conditions, such as acupuncture, are being touted for uses beyond their evidence.

An Associated Press review of dozens of studies and interviews with more than 100 sources found an underground medical system operating in plain sight, with a different standard than the rest of medical care, and millions of people using it on blind faith.

So one of the most ironic things about the promotion of alt-med woo is that those behind it point fingers at & moan about the evils of Big Pharma, yet they themselves are corporations fleecing people and essentially selling them snake-oil!  And not only that, due to the nature of these supposedly “natural” remedies they are not regulated & tested by the government.

This sounds like a huge swindle to me, and I think that is because it is in fact a huge swindle.  The bad thing is that it has the potential to do serious damage to peoples’ health and the image of real science-based medicine.

Fortunately, it seems as if there is – finally – some kind of backlash against this nonsense…

Many hope that President Barack Obama’s administration will take a new look. In the meantime, some outlandish claims are drawing a backlash. The industry has stepped up self-policing — the Council for Responsible Nutrition hired a lawyer to work with the Council of Better Business Bureaus and file complaints against problem sellers.

“We certainly don’t think this is a huge problem in the industry,” Mister said, but he acknowledges occasionally seeing infomercials “that promise the world.”

“The outliers were making the public feel that this entire industry was just snake oil and that there weren’t any legitimate products,” said Andrea Levine, ad division chief for the business bureaus.

The FDA just issued its first guidelines for good manufacturing practices, aimed at improving supplement safety. Consumer groups say the rules don’t go far enough — for example, they don’t set limits on contaminants like lead and arsenic — but they do give the FDA more leverage after problems come to light.

The Federal Trade Commission is filing more complaints about deceptive marketing. One of the largest settlements occurred last August — $30 million from the makers of Airborne, a product marketed with a folksy “invented by a teacher” slogan that claimed to ward off germs spread through the air.

People need to keep a healthy skepticism about that magical marketing term “natural,” said Kathy Allen, a dietitian at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.

The truth is, supplements lack proof of safety or benefit. Asked to take a drug under those terms, “most of us would say ‘no,'” Allen said. “When it says ‘natural,’ the perception is there is no harm. And that is just not true.”

To emphasize the importance of Allen’s point, I would add that lightning, tornadoes, and tiger bites are all quite natural and also lethal 🙂

5 Responses to “Alternative “Medicine” Quackery Goes Mainstream”

  1. susan said

    Had swelling in ankles , legs, liver,and you name it.. cirrhosis of the liver. Alternative medicine doesn’t work my ass…. !!!! One freaken month of using herbal pills and colon cleanse , milk thistle being one, my symptoms are at bay and I am able to funtion. Copper levels are maintained by use of of zinc salts…. liver swelling and cirrhosis on hold with the use of milk thistle and other herbs.

    open your freakin eyes……people “Let your medicine be your food , and your food be your medicine…”

    • mattusmaximus said

      I’m happy you’re feeling better, but understand that your argument is suffering from a fatal flaw, common to many alt-med style arguments, called post hoc ergo propter hoc. Basically you claim that because you got better after taking these alt-med treatments then it must have been the alt-med stuff that made you better.

      There are many other possibilities, including but not limited to:
      1. You got better on your own.
      2. The condition from which you suffer is cyclical, having no effect for long periods of time with occasional flare ups.
      3. It is simply the placebo effect.

      When medical scientists test out new drugs, they have to take all of these factors (and much more) into account to ensure that it actually is their drug which is treating/curing the condition. Alt-med has no such science-based practice.

      I strongly encourage you to get your cirrhosis treated via science-based medicine, but it’s your life.

      As for your logical fallacy in giving the alt-med credit for you feeling better, I would also point out that you started to feel better one day after the sun rose. But do you give the daily cycle of the Earth’s rotation credit for your “cure”? 😉

  2. susan said

    Then explain the fact that every time I run out of my herbal pills and it has been two or three weeks since i have order them every time no questions I start swelling up again, my cramps come back and my liver function starts falling short. Then when I get my pills after about a week my system starts to stabalize. I have been testing the pills trust me.

    • mattusmaximus said

      The placebo effect comes to mind. It could also be that you feel better when you aren’t really getting better – are you getting regular checkups with your doctor to confirm your improvement?

      One more point: it is very important for people to understand that as compelling as your story may sound, personal anecdotes of this kind are the lowest level of evidence. What is needed isn’t personal stories, what is needed is rigorous & double-blinded peer-reviewed scientific studies of the remedies in question to determine if they are actually having any real effect. Science-based medicine subjects new treatments & drugs to these testing protocols all the time, and some are found to work while others don’t – can the same be said of alt-med? I think not.

  3. With all the diseases that plagues mankind today, there is no way the hospital is the unique way people can find their deliverance and healing anymore they have to turn to these other means.

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