Physician suicide is an enormous problem. We lose approximately 400 doctors and trainees annually to suicide. This is a tragedy, pure and simple. Not limited to the human carnage of the equivalent of an entire medical school class or more, but, to quote Dr. Pamela Wible, “Each year more than one million Americans lose their doctors to suicide.”
What does it mean, then, when physicians who are trained in medicine — defined as the application of scientific principles to the diagnosis and treatment of human ills — turn away from reality to accept the magical thinking of pseudoscience? I submit that it is intellectual suicide. It may not seem to patients as if they’ve lost their doctors, but when physicians stop practicing medicine and embrace magic, those patients are no longer receiving medical care. There is such a thing as being too open-minded; your brain really can fall out.
Currently known as “Functional medicine” or “Integrative medicine,” it was formerly referred to as “Complementary” or “Alternative”, sometimes “holistic” or “natural.” Quackery is still quackery, no matter how hard it tries to re-brand itself over the decades. It encompasses, amonth other things, Natuopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy, Reiki and other forms of “energy healing,” and acupuncture. (Yes, acupuncture. Check out the archives at Science Based Medicine. Although widely considered to be efficacious, studies on it are fundamentally flawed. When studied properly it doesn’t work any better than a placebo. And placebos are fundamentally unethical.) Speaking of Science Based Medicine, by the way, this recent article is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s called “The Harm of Integrative Medicine from a Patient’s Perspective.” It’s riveting.
Alternative medicine doesn’t work. If someone takes it and gets better, there are only three possible explanations:
- They were going to get better anyway, and would have even if they hadn’t taken it.
- They didn’t have the condition in the first place. (This is likely the source of many apparent cancer cures.)
- The curative intervention was something other than the alt med one. Either conventional medicine was used concurrently, or the alternative medication was contaminated with actual active ingredients. Red yeast rice lowers cholesterol because it contains lovastatin, a recognized, well-studied pharmaceutical which happens to be much cheaper (on the $4.00 generic list) when purchased in drug form rather than as a supplement.
Why are supposedly intelligent, scientific physicians drawn to pseudoscience? I actually wrote about this back in 2008. (It’s a pretty good piece, if I do say so myself.) If you don’t feel like clicking through to read the whole thing, here’s the meat:
Far from gaining a new “faith” in alternative medicine (that requires magical thinking), I believe that these physicians have lost their faith. Faith that science and rational thinking are the best way to understand the physical world around us, including the human body. How easy it is to relieve the pain of not understanding by giving in to the idea that there are answers after all; energy fields; water with memory; the “mind-body connection.” That there is also an enormous, enthusiastic, welcoming community — cult-like — merely reinforces all the new “paradigms.”
Physician suicide is a tragedy. But so is integrative medicine and all its permutations of quackery, which push magical thinking and pseudoscience onto unsuspecting patients. Intellectual suicide is just as tragic for those who have entrusted their care to us.