Weighing the risks of alternative medicine

They're at it again­­ the die-hard traditionalists, working over time to prove alternatives, especially herbal therapy is a waste of money. An editorial highly critical of alternative medicine appearing in the September 1998 New England Journal of Medicine titled "Alternative Medicine: The Risks of Untested and Unregulated Remedies" takes direct aim. They wish to do war with anyone who dare cross them. Why?

Here are some facts and thoughts; you decide. Indeed, we do hire experts like doctors to manage our health but what happens when they don't have the answers? No one has all the answers. What would you do if faced with an illness that the doctors didn't have an answer for? Would you continue to seek help from other physicians or, when you've had the help of say ten doctors and still no answers, would you just give up? Or would you look into alternatives. Statistics say that a third of all Americans now seek out the help of an alternative practitioner.

Traditional practitioners rely on FDA-approved medications. These medications many times have severe side effects; they cause more hospitalizations than any other single illness­­ including cancer and heart disease­­ and fall somewhere between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death. The above mentioned editorial points out that herbal therapies have not been studied scientifically nor undergone the same kinds of double-blind studies that drugs do. The author is demanding the same kinds of rigorous testing. Most herbalists would welcome any studies. Unfortunately, since there is no money in herbal medicine, no drug company is going to bother. Of course, there is money to be made in natural medicine but it pales compared to the new medicines coming on the market today. The latest example, a new drug to control the effects of rheumatoid arthritis at $32 a pill!

Here's another flaw in the tongue-lashing of alternative medicine. Most traditionalists slam the use of anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of herbal medicine yet turn around and draw very broad unscientifically-proven conclusions about what they see as risks. And they completely ignore the fact that the incidence of serious herbal toxicity is insignificant.

Where do we get most of the reliable information currently available on herbal therapy? Two thirds of the world's population still use herbal therapy as their first medicines. The best and most reliable studies come from botanical medicine researchers in Japan, Germany, France and Russia. The American medical establishment is trying catch up by establishing the Office of Alternative Medicine housed in the NIH and offering grants to mainstream universities willing to study alternatives­­ including Columbia, Harvard and Stanford.

Reports coming out of Columbia aired in a recent report on PBS show that their research is giving them viable information about alternative therapies combined with traditional therapies­­ and a bit of an edge financially. Patients like the idea of have a choice.

There's a novel idea­­ choices. Do you suppose?

Till next time, Rebecca.

Posted to Zephyr Online January 9, 1999
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