5 Ways To Evaluate “Alternative Medicines”

December 30, 2008

“What do you call alternative medicines that actually work? Medicine.” Tim Minchin, Australian humorist.

Lately, alternative medicines and therapies have become very popular. Whether it’s “healing touch” (the belief that the human “energy field” can be manipulated by gentle touches to provide greater health and well-being), or homeopathy (the practice of administering extremely diluted fluids which contain the “memory” of the original substance), or aromatherapy (the use of plant oil smells to provide a wide range of health benefits), these therapies all claim medical benefits despite the lack of acceptance in the medical community.

Alternative medicines are a $15 billion a year business. When chiropractic, a therapy considered by many to qualify as an alternative medicine, is included, billons more are added. Is all of this money well spent?

When evaluating whether some alternative medicine you’ve heard about might be right for you, you should take the following steps:

1. Do extensive research on the subject. Claims of success made by practitioners of alternative therapies should not be relied upon as proof of their efficacy. What do you expect them to say? Go online and look into the subject. If something claims to have healing qualities, where’s the actual proof? Has it been studied scientifically in controlled tests? Have the studies all been done by persons or institutions which have a stake in a favorable outcome? Look for objective and thorough studies of the issue. Using this approach, healing touch, homeopathy and aromatherapy all fail. There is simply no valid scientific evidence that such claims are anything but pure quackery.

2. Don’t rely on testimonials. The easiest thing in the world is to find a celebrity, a hockey mom, and a doctor in a white coat to tell you that it worked for them, so it’s got to work for you. If you went through life relying on testimonials, you would end up buying every product sold on late night TV (including the handy dandy electronic nose trimmer), and believing in every tarot card reader on the side of the road. You have no idea whether the testimonial is true or not, how much the celebrity was paid to tout the product, or what the conditions were under which the product was used. Ignore testimonials completely.

3. Ask yourself whether the claims even make any sense. Does diluting a substance increase its efficacy? If a substance has health benefits, is less of it better? If that’s true, why not eliminate it altogether and get the most benefit?

4. Ask your doctor. Good doctors are trained scientists. They may not be able to give you all the answers, or guarantee a cure, but they are educated in how to properly evaluate the available evidence.

5. Don’t just hope for the best by saying: “Well, what’s the harm? It might work.” Harm could come in two ways. First, by engaging in alternative practices, you might be missing out on better tested methods of addressing the health problem. When comedian Andy Kaufman traveled to the Philippines to have “psychic surgery” on his lung cancer (he died shortly thereafter), he might have better spent his time on more radiation or chemotherapy. Second, the untested therapy may itself be harmful. That “colonic cleansing” could in itself lead to death.

When it comes to your family’s health, place your bet on that which has been medically proven. Doesn’t that only make sense?