This article from the Journal of the American Medical Association provides us with a timely recap on the achievements (or not) of the ‘alternative medicine’ industry over the last couple of decades. Not only is it timely, but it is also damning. I’ve put alt med in apostrophes, because, as we rabid skeptics say ad nauseam, there is no such thing. Rather, there is medicine that works, and medicine that doesn’t work. That’s it.
The author isn’t just analysing the industry at large, but rather examines the operation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which was set up in 1992 specifically to investigate alternative therapies, thanks largely to a couple of ‘true believer’ congressmen in the US Senate.
So, given that $1.6 billion has been spent in the intervening 20 years by NCCAM, we should now have a text-book brimming with great alternative cures, right? The pharmaceutical industry should be lobbying to shut them down, right? Science, biology, physics and all that overly complicated stuff should have been turned on their heads, right?
Well, yes, all those things SHOULD have happened – if only alternative medicines and therapies weren’t bogus.
The author provides a fair treatment by pointing out that, yes, many of today’s most effective medicines started out as folk remedies – for example, aspirin from the willow plant, and quinine from cinchona bark. However, there is a crucial difference between these natural beginnings, and much of the alternative therapy industry.
Firstly, the medicine that works (like aspirin for example), can be demonstrated to work in trials.
And secondly, by studying the remedy, it is possible to identify the biological underpinnings of it, and in most cases, show how it works.
However, all that we require to classify something as medicine that works, is that it can be demonstrated to do so in proper trials. Knowing how it actually does this is a bonus.
Unfortunately for NCCAM, they have spent a shitload of money on many alternative therapies, and can’t tick the box on either of these requirements. For example:
- $374 000 to find that inhaling lemon and lavender scents does not promote wound healing
- $750 000 to find that prayer does not cure AIDS or hasten recovery from breast-reconstruction surgery
- $390 000 to find that ancient Indian remedies do not control type 2 diabetes
- $700 000 to find that magnets do not treat arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or migraine headaches, and,
- $406 000 to find that coffee enemas do not cure pancreatic cancer.
- Garlic does not lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol
- St John’s wort does not treat depression
- Ginkgo does not improve memory
- Chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine do not treat arthritis
- Saw palmetto does not treat prostatic hypertrophy
- Milk thistle does not treat hepatitis, and,
- Echinacea and megavitamins do not treat colds.
Depressingly, the author concludes that unfortunately, such negative results don’t seem to translate into decreased uptake of such therapies. Coupled with the limited (or no) biological plausibility of most of the therapies studied, this should be a strong case for directing this significant funding to other more deserving areas. He sums it up well as follows:
For complementary and alternative medicine, it seems that some people believe what they want to believe, arguing that it does not matter what the data show; they know what works for them. Because negative studies do not appear to change behavior and because studies performed without a sound biological basis have little to no chance of success, it would make sense for NCCAM to either refrain from funding studies of therapies that border on mysticism such as distance healing, purgings, and prayer; redefine its mission to include a better understanding of the physiology of the placebo response; or shift its resources to other NIH institutes.