How the ‘alt’ is polarizing, and harming, medicine By Benjamin Mazer – December 29, 2016
Alternative medicine is an innocuous, even attractive, term, framed as a healthy, natural option other than conventional medicine. What could possibly be bad about alternatives and nature?
The truth is, there’s little unconventional or natural about the factory production lines and multibillion-dollar industry behind most of the so-called alternative products used by millions of Americans.
Instead, much of alt-med is based on a deep distrust of for-profit medicine and science.
Yet this is the direction we are being pushed by the CDC, with its edict not to use conventional and effective opioids.
Just as the alt-right community reacts broadly against the political establishment, the alt-med community seems more interested in reacting against the corporatization of medicine and nutrition and less about proposing its own reasonable, evidence-based alternatives.
Once defined by personal, one-on-one interactions between physicians and their patients, modern medicine is now undeniably a big-business endeavor.
Mega-corporations have a growing influence in the field, providing the drugs and devices we use and conducting more and more of the clinical research that forms the foundation of modern medicine. The public is angered by the selfish way that some pharmaceutical companies behave.
But so are doctors. This shared ethical outlook should be strengthening the alliance between doctor and patient. Instead, we’re drifting apart. We need a new political movement to counteract this trend.
Yet individuals like me who criticize unproven alternative health interventions are often accused of being shills for big corporations.
Alt-med attacks on physicians recapitulate the tribalist left-right divide in politics by implying that doctors are either on the side of patients or they are on the side of pharmaceutical and medical device companies.
Some alt-med criticism is based in reality.
- Some pharmaceutical companies have skewed clinical trial results for their benefit and to the detriment of patients. Some companies have priced drugs to maximize profit rather than maximize the number of people they can help.
- There are bona fide cases of physician kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies.
- And new diseases have been invented just to sell pills rather than to address a real need.
When the alt-med community discusses these problems, it isn’t wrong, though the facts are often exaggerated beyond recognition.
I and other doctors are connected to big business, whether we like it or not.
You may see the pharmaceutical industry as bad, but should agree that it can make wonderful products that ease suffering and lengthen lives
through our prescriptions we direct patients and insurers to flood pharmaceutical companies with billions of dollars.
Yet we cannot control how that money is subsequently spent, whether on innovative research or protectionist lobbying1
You won’t see this nuance when reading popular alt-med publications. The narrative there is that pharmaceutical corporations are thoroughly evil and that physicians or scientists who endorse their products are morally equivalent to these “evil” organizations.
Doctors do, however, need to align themselves with patients and against amoral corporations as best they can.
The medical profession must be vocal in criticizing the flaws of the industrial-medical complex.
But we also need to address the unfair conflations and outright conspiracy theories that the alt-med community generates. It is harming the doctor-patient relationship and decreasing patient trust of physicians.
The distrust bred by conspiracy theories can also injure patients just as much as any disease. Vaccine-related conspiracy theories, for example, have caused a deadly polio outbreak in Pakistan.
Unfortunately, profits drive much of alt-med “fake news,”
When natural health publications peddle unproved therapies, that content is used to sell ads — and often their own treatments — for massive profits.
Widespread distrust and cynicism of important public institutions such as the health care system are counter-productive.
Pessimism erodes, rather than strengthens, our institutions. Doctors can’t counteract this reactionary trend by merely doing their jobs
Doctors and patients can and should address the unethical behavior of the medical establishment, whether it is peddling traditional remedies or alternative ones.
The medical establishment does not consist mainly of doctors. Instead, the real power lies in the powerful interests using healthcare for their own financial gain, like hospital administrators and healthcare investors.
Additionally, government agencies like the CDC and FDA are being gamed by outside interest groups like PROP and the recovery industry, who stand to make stratospheric profits from this unregulated sector of the market.