Monday, March 23, 2009

Snake Oil vs. Scientific Medicine

Our conference was being held over lunch, but Pat, a middle-aged health-care consultant, did not touch a bite of her food. When I asked if something was wrong, she revealed her lifelong battle with Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the bowels that causes diarrhea and abdominal pain.

I asked what her doctor advised. With some hesitation, she told me she was chiefly being treated by someone she called her "teacher," who helped her use her use qi gong, a Chinese system of breathing and energy exercise, to manage her illness.

She also sees a conventional doctor. But I was struck that this woman, whose job involves ensuring that hospital practices are supported by scientific evidence, had chosen to consult a provider of alternative medicine.

"My teacher looks at me as a whole person," she explained. "He looks at my emotional state, not just my diseased state. . . . He empowers me on how to care for myself. . . . My doctor looks at me just as a disease."

As an MD with two decades of experience, I felt a sense of rebuke. Personally, I am not averse to alternative medicine. Though I was raised and educated in America, I was born in India, where treatments such as ayurveda and yoga originated and where they are perceived as an equivalent method of healing many illnesses. And I use meditation and massage as aids to relaxation.[...]


  1. In the words of the great PT Barnum, there's a sucker born every minute.

  2. Do you have sources for halchik decisions regarding alternative medicins?

  3. I used an alternative doctor for IBS. Conventional medicine offered me nothing but steroids and antidepressants. I recovered using alternative medicine.

    The US has the second worst newborn death rate in the developed world.
    Infant mortality is considered a measure of the overall health of the nation. Anything we can do to help ourselves, we should do.

  4. Rocco Lampone said...

    Do you have sources for halchik decisions regarding alternative medicins?
    The Encyclopeida of Jewish Medical Ethics by Dr. Steinberg (published by Feldheim) has a discussion of alternative medicine and a few brief items related to halacha.

  5. One mistake modern medicine has made is to remove the concept of placebo from our armamentarium.
    It's well established that placebos are an excellent way to treat many conditions because there's tremendous power in the mind to heal a person. Given someone a sugar pill, tell them it's a cure for their ills and there's a 35-45% it'll work. Fantastic stuff, so why don't we use them?
    1) Medicine has evolved from an art into a hypoer rational science. Placebos do not work on a scientific basis, at least not any that we currently understand. Therefore we can't use them.
    2) Placebos are associated with dishonesty. If I hand a patient a sugar pill and tell them it's an active medicine, although there's a good chance it'll help them get better, I am still lying to my patient. Currently Western medical ethics do not allow doctors to lie to their patients, even if there's potential benefit to it.
    Through either denial or an extremely warped view of science, alternative medicine practitioners simply don't have these issues.

  6. Rocco,

    Defining "alternative" medicine is a tricky task. For example, if a particular herb has been known to effective treat digestive problems for centuries, and a new medicine invented in 2007 in the U.S., blessed by the American Medical Association, comes on the market, which is truly conventional and which is alternative?

    I say that the methods that have lasted the test of time are conventional and new treatments are alternative.

    Yes, certain new treatments might ultimately be more effective than certain time honored traditional remedies, but it's also true that complications from taking prescribed pharmaceuticals is the cause of many thousands of deaths every year.

    Valium is made from valerian, and both are used to treat the same conditions. As far as I know, nobody has ever died from a valerian overdose, but many many people have died from a Valium overdose.

    If one medicine might kill you and the other almost certainly will not, I believe Halacha would say that the Valium is forbidden (as an example).


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