Complementary Medicine

Reproduced from the RT Logo

Are people attracted by the mystique that surrounds such therapies,by a bit of mumbo jumbo quasi-science?

Mark Porter AS a GP with more than a passing interest in complementary medicine I made a point of watching last Tuesday's episode of Strange Days on BBC2. Written and presented by journalist Catherine Bennett, it not only derided many of the principles that alternative practitioners hold so dear but also took a hefty swipe at the millions of people who consult them  - contentious stuff.

I am not a violent man by nature, but I was urged more than once during the programme to get out of my seat and give at least one of the practitioners interviewed a firm prod with a sharpened stick just to check that they were in the real world. There was much talk of disorganised energy, build-up of toxins and bodily harmony, and little or none of mode of action, evidence of safety or, dare I say it, effectiveness. To be frank, most of it came over as mumbo jumbo.

I know what you are thinking he would say that wouldn't he? - another dismissive doctor. Well, I beg to differ. I will use and recommend anything that helps make people better, but we do need to take a long, hard look at what alternative medicine is actually offering. Why is it that we are so demanding when it comes to orthodox medicine and yet at the same time are so eager to flock to therapy centres and undergo unproven, humiliating (colonic irrigation springs to mind) and expensive "natural" procedures? Is it because people are attracted by the mystique that surrounds such therapies and like a bit of mumbo jumbo, quasi, oversimplistic science, and spending time with someone who cares? Or is it because some of these healing arts have been around for thousands of years and therefore must work (a fact I find worrying, not reassuring)?

My colleagues of 200 years ago were inflicting all sorts of horrible treatments on their patients, convinced that they were removing toxins and addressing bodily imbalances. Thankfully, modern medicine has progressed and, as Bennett pointed out in the programme, we now know that malaria is not caused by breathing bad air, and hysteria is not confined to women or due to womb trouble. Hundreds of thousands of lives and many wombs have been saved as a result.

A hundred years ago we used to recommend that people with asthma took up smoking now we know that it kills them. Why then should homeopaths refer to a hook written by a man who died in 1843 to decide what remedies to prescribe in the nineties? Most sixth-form biology students know more about the human body and disease processes than he did.

Antiquity in itself is nothing to be proud of. Why do we take on board all the other advances in our lives and yet ignore those pertaining to our health? Catherine Bennett put it very succinctly in the programme when she said that alternative practitioners speak a different language, live in a world where belief overrules knowledge, abandon reason, forget about evidence and ignore science.

Despite all of the above, alternative medicine has much to share with its younger sister. Three-quarters of patients who use alternative therapies find them helpful, despite the fact that such benefits are hard to explain (placebo effect aside).
To join forces in the fight against ill health, we need the application of the same rigid standards in both fields. Remedies, therapies and practices in all types of medicine need proper clinical evaluation and licensing so that consumers and practitioners know what is helpful and what is harmless. Until such time as that happens, alternative medicine will remain alternative and not complementary, despite what its practitioners may tell you.

Strange,but is it true?

Catherine Bennett, who outraged many liberal parents with last year's Spoiling the Child: The Case Against Modern Parenting, is giving the same treatment to our love of the "fantastic" in the first of a three-part series, Strange Days.
A prime target is the case of the Southall milk-drinking statue, featured in this week's programme, and press reactions to it: "Journalists were going along saying, 'Yes, I saw it with my own eyes!' Not, 'What's the probability of this really happening?'
"The Beast of Bodmin story was another - serious newspapers sending people to look for this thing!"
Later weeks treat alternative medicine ("because something's 2,000 years old, you're told that's a reason to use it, which is absurd") and psychotherapy with similar scepticism. Why, does she think, are the press and TV so soft? "These types of subject are audience winners," she suggests. "Programmes such as Strange but True get enormous audiences. Astrology columns bring in new readers. Yet few of the people who make those programmes or put horoscopes in the papers believe in them."
Taking no prisoners:Catherine Bennet

Antequated astrology:well past its sell-by date
Harmless entertainment or foolish superstition? Catherine Bennet argues with the astrologers in Strange Days.
TV is in love with the paranormal. Strange but True, Mystic Meg on the National Lottery, Secrets of the Paranormal - all these programmes feed an appetite for unexplained phenomena. But, argues Catherine Bennett in this three-part series, such "harmless entertainment" is fostering superstition.
Strange Days is a cogently argued war cry on behalf of rationalism and scepticism, and Bennett is taking no prisoners. Astrology, parapsychology, feng shui and UFOlogy are all dismissed as "hocus pocus", while Bennett (filmed gleefully standing under ladders and in broken mirrors) scourges their adherents.
Future programmes make the case against alternative medicine and psychotherapy: sparks will fly.

Dr Mark Porter co-presents Watchdog Healthcheck Mondays BBC1 and is on Jimmy Young, alternate Mondays Radio 2.





Chaos Quantum Logic Cosmos Conscious Belief Elect. Art Chem. Maths

Email:Radio Times 5-11 August 2000   File Info: Created 6/8/2000 Updated 17/8/2001 Page Address: