Alternative medicine is big business. Really big. Billions of dollars big. All that money spent on supplements, acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki, and all those other “natural” cures and remedies should make the savvy consumer sit up and take notice. Or at least look into what’s being sold, by whom, and why. I mean, if all that stuff worked, shouldn’t Americans be getting healthier?
First off, does it work? You may have noticed that almost every alternative practitioner starts his spiel with reasons why “the medical establishment” (that would be me) doesn’t want you to know about their new super-secret cure-all that everyone in China has known about for millenia. Look, I want my patients to be healthy. Trust me: we doctors can make a perfectly good living simply caring for the manifestations of genetic misfortune (cancers, birth defects, etc) and random happenstance (trauma, infections, etc). We have absolutely no reason to “keep people sick” just to maintain our incomes, so let’s not even go there. Ditto Big Pharma. If they found a cure for cancer, they’d market the crap out of it, make an obscene amount of money curing everyone in sight, then quit making it once it went off patent and they couldn’t keep raking in the bucks hand over fist, and not care one bit when people started dying again.
So does this stuff work? Turns out it doesn’t. Legitimate medical scientists have studied just about every kind of alternative medicine out there quite extensively. The US government has spent billions supporting this research through something called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). What kind of results have they gotten? This: every single truly alternative therapy studied does nothing. Got that? Nothing. Nothing at all. That doesn’t stop the government from spinning their non-results, though.
Consider acupuncture, a pre-scientific theory of energy meridians practiced in China before they had access to real medicine (and which, by the way, isn’t even mentioned in current Chinese health care policy). The more it is studied, the more it is revealed to be nothing more than an elaborate placebo. That didn’t seem to stop the Director of the NCCAM from writing:
A systematic review of randomized controlled clinical trials of acupuncture for postoperative pain, published in the August 2008 issue of the British Journal of Anaesthesia, demonstrated that acupuncture had clear value,[emphasis mine] that it decreased pain intensity and lowered opioid side effects.
That journal article was something called a meta-analysis. It was a study of other studies of acupuncture, which included all kinds of different methodologies, surgeries, acupuncture techniques; everything. Furthermore, all they looked at were subjective symptoms like pain and nausea, two things that are notoriously responsive to placebos (and that tend to get better with time after surgery). Here’s the actual conclusion from the article:
Perioperative acupuncture may [emphasis mine] be a useful adjunct for acute postoperative pain management.
Can you say “marketing”?
Why are otherwise savvy consumers taken in by this crap? Several reasons:
- Persuasively misleading salesmen
- Plain old greed and laziness
In many ways, alternative medicine and its hucksters resemble the deceptive financial practices of the unbridled, unregulated denizens of Wall Street. Junk bonds are the homeopathy of investment banking; derivatives are the acupuncture of the stock market; Dr. Oz is the Bernie Madoff of alternative medicine. Didn’t your broker sound like he knew what he was talking about while going on and on about those new mortgage-backed securities? Just like all that talk about “like cures like”, colon cleanses, and energy fields sounds so scientific! Alternative medicine hucksters and boiler room salesmen both know how to dazzle you with impressive terminology that doesn’t actually mean anything. By the way, there are plenty of “real” doctors and “legitimate” financial advisers who fall for this stuff, and unwittingly perpetuate the fraud. Just because your chiropractor or banker believes in something still doesn’t make it true.
Testimonials are for advertising, not for advising. Just because something happened to one person (if it actually happened at all to the paid spokesperson) doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve the same result. Hey, Bernie Madoff made lots of money for lots of people for many years. Lots of those people were telling lots of other people about him before it all went to hell. Just because your mother’s hairdresser’s cousin’s boyfriend’s roommate won a gold medal after taking glucosamine for his knee doesn’t change the fact that the stuff does absolutely nothing.
Consumers fall for bad financial deals out of greed. Many patients succumb to alternative medicine out of laziness. There is no way to lose weight except by eating less. Fat burners, colon cleanses, and cookie diets that promise quick, easy weight loss are nothing but scams. Elaborate vegetable diets won’t cure cancer. Back pain generally goes away, though it may take three months. Quick fixes that sound too good to be true pretty much always are.
If consumers looked at alternative medicine as carefully as they scrutinized their investments, they’d have a lot more money available for investing.