This week, a European panel of university-based medical experts declared all-out war on alternative medicine. While there is a steady stream of stories covering what the university set is threatened by at any given moment (Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP is an example), this declaration had a World War II, Churchill-type feel. People don’t like university-based traditional medicine because they either intuitively know or soon figure out that it’s a machine that can chew them up and spit them out right at a time they’re at their most vulnerable. Let me explain.
Why Do People Love Alternative Medicine?
I practice close to one of the alternative-medicine capitals of the known universe, Boulder, Colorado. Hence, as a traditionally trained MD who practices here, you either make your peace with alternative medicine or you scream at the rain. Through the years, I’ve earned a healthy respect for what it can do and embraced certain parts of the field as a whole. I’m not alone. Traditional medicine now loses thousands of newly minted MDs a year who decide that what they were taught in a university-based medical school is not always in the best interest of the patients that they have been entrusted to help. Some punch out altogether, going off the insurance grid, and open practices that offer many alternative treatments. Most continue to practice traditional medicine but welcome supplements and the alternative therapies that their patients embrace. Their patients soon learn that they can talk to these physicians about their acupuncture, craniosacral treatments, chiropractic care, homeopathy, naturopathy, and so on. However, some physicians just can’t buy into alternative therapies and scream at the rain.
How many patients choose alternative medicine? Based on the most recent NIH survey, about 4 in 10 Americans. In fact, that survey is old, so those numbers are likely low. I know that around here, that number is likely as high as 7 in 10, so there are whole regions of the U.S. where the majority of the population sees or has seen some type of alternative-medicine practitioner. If you add in the number that use any type of dietary supplement on a regular basis, 7 in 10 of all Americans qualify as using alternative medicine. More concerning for the university types declaring war on all of this is that 84% of those people have high confidence in the safety and efficacy of what they’re using.
With the widespread availability of traditional medicine, why is this happening? As a healthcare practitioner, it’s easy to see that alternative medicine is the opposite of all the things patients hate about traditional medicine. It’s open-minded where traditional medicine is close-minded. It offers hope, while its counterpart frequently offers pessimism. Its practitioners will spend time with patients and be friendly and welcoming, while the other side’s physicians are rushed, overextended, and brusk. I could go on, but you get the picture that traditional medicine has a real problem.
The University Machine and Its War on Alternative Medicine
While the press release this week by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) was aimed at homeopathy, it took a swipe at all alternative medicine by claiming that there could be only one type of medicine (its type). While attempts by universities to squash alternative medicine aren’t new, this one comes at a time when the traditional-medical machine is losing its grip. For example, just this week, the University of California, Irvine, announced a $200 million gift to open an alternative-medicine center. The university took the money, but there was a ready stream of nastygrams from professors from other universities about why this was a bad idea. Why would a billionaire who knows how the world works at a high level give a huge fortune to open an alternative-medicine center? While I’ve discussed some reasons above, there are many others. Let’s start with the hypocrisy of the traditional medical machine.
Traditional Medicine Is a Hypocrite
I’ve covered a lot of the silliness that passes for traditional medicine on the blog. So let’s review.
These posts discuss how traditional medicine has many therapies with no evidence of efficacy that likely hurt patients every day:
- Repeated steroid injections result not only in diminishing pain relief with each shot but also in a toxic effect on stem cells that help maintain and repair the tissue. More concerning is that the most recent, high-level research performed by the university set shows that these injections kill knee cartilage. Despite this, they remain the most common knee procedure worldwide.
- Research on lumbar fusions over the past few years has shown that fusion surgery is no more effective than decompression surgery or physical therapy and that patients still have the same pain more than a decade after the surgery. Despite this, the surgical fusion industry is strong.
- Knee meniscus surgery has been shown to be ineffective at relieving pain, be no more effective than physical therapy, and create the perfect setting for future arthritis. Again, this is still the most common knee surgery performed in America.
- Narcotics, such as opioids, not only don’t relieve pain in some people, but they can actually amplify it, and addiction and overdose risks associated with these prescription painkillers have become a national crisis.
These other studies I’ve covered show that alternative medicine is gaining ground in proving via research that it’s real or works:
- We’re seeing more and more evidence that craniosacral therapy works for pain relief and functional improvement.
- Research on spinal manipulation, such as chiropractic care, continues to show its effectiveness at improving function and reducing pain at least as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Glucosamine and chondroitin are powerful anti-inflammatories that are excellent alternatives for NSAIDs and their dangerous side effects.
- Chondroitin beats prescription Celebrex fro helping knee arthritis pain.
So why would a billionaire give $200 million to a university to study alternative medicine? Because traditional medicine sorely needs a reboot of gargantuan proportions. Billionaires often make their money by betting on the long shot. In fact, this billionaire, Henry Samueli, was a UCLA professor in electrical engineering who started a broadband company in the early ’90s when the idea of pulling up movies on demand was science fiction. Now it’s called Netflix.
Will the University Machine Stop Screaming at the Rain?
As you’ve read here, the university-pharma industrial complex is a conflicted mess. Medical school professors are on the pharma dole left and right. Drug companies put their names on boardrooms and have infiltrated medical-school classrooms. Medical schools teach physicians to avoid original thinking and follow clinical flowcharts drafted by the same professors taking money from pharma. Finally, the universities themselves have become big businesses and now hold more cash than the US government.
Americans love alternative medicine because, in ever-expanding numbers, they hate traditional medicine. So rather than screaming at the rain with press releases from obscure groups with obtuse acronyms, they need to do more of what the billionaire Dr. Samueli did: Embrace alternative medicine. Learn from it. Use it to fix what’s wrong with traditional medicine.
The upshot? Traditional medicine needs to learn from alternative medicine, not try to regulate it out of existence. The funny thing is that so many people now use alternative medicine in one form or another, that if it’s not careful, the traditional-medicine machine now risks destroying its university-based empire by trying to get rid of what the people want.