The popularity of alternative, or complementary, medicine has increased rapidly in the recent years.
There are a number of different reasons why people consult alternative practitioners. But by far the most common reason is dissatisfaction with what orthodox medicine has to offer.
Patients are frightened by the high incidence of side effects known to be associated with the use of modern drugs and surgical techniques; they are annoyed by the lack of time and courtesy offered to them by many doctors; and they are attracted by the promises of a sympathetic manner and of what they assume to be risk-free therapies that are associated with alternative practitioners.
There is little doubt in my mind that the dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine is well-founded in many cases. There is now ample evidence available to show that medical school trained practitioners can often be more interested in their research programs than in the welfare of their patients, and more interested in the science of medicine than the art of healing.
The boom years of alternative medicine have seen the development of a vast number of specialties. Some are ancient, others are relatively modern; some are symptomatic, others are designed to improve the overall health of the individual; some are based on mental powers, others are used purely on physical ailments. Some techniques are logical, while most I find are irrational and illogical.
There has been an explosion in the number of practitioners offering alternative medicine services. Almost everyone knows somebody, who knows somebody who claims to be a “holistic doctor.”
For the individual patient wanting to take advantage of the services offered by these alternative practitioners there is one enormous problem: how to tell the difference between the well-qualified practitioner and the out-and-out quack.
Surprising though it may seem, there are few laws about just who can or cannot practice alternative medicine. And there are no laws to prevent individuals from setting themselves up as training establishments or “colleges” and offering diplomas by post to students prepared to part with the appropriate fee.
It is possible for someone with absolutely no training to leave their factory or office job on Friday evening and set up shop as an alternative medicine practitioner on Monday morning! In the afternoon the same practitioner can even open his or her own training school!
Many alternative medicine practitioners offer an excellent and valuable service. I am an enthusiastic supporter of many types of alternative medicine. But we must not ignore the fact that there are practitioners offering their services today who couldn’t pass a basic biology exam. Some of them know virtually nothing about anatomy or physiology. Unfortunately, this means there are plenty of practitioners around who are a definite menace and a danger to the health of their patients.
Some of those who practice alternative medicine claim that their treatments are entirely safe. This is not true. There are a number of very real dangers associated with all types of alternative medicine.
First, there are the intrinsic dangers associated with alternative therapies even when they are practiced competently. Natural remedies are, in most cases, drugs. They act on the body and its organs in the same way a drug would.
Secondly, there is the very real risk that because of a poor training an alternative practitioner will make an incorrect diagnosis and treat a patient improperly. For example, in one well-documented case a 22-year-old woman died of tuberculosis after being treated with Epsom salts, herbs and a fruit diet by an alternative medicine practitioner who thought she was constipated.
Thirdly, there is the equally real risk that a treatment offered by an alternative practitioner will interact dangerously with a treatment offered simultaneously by a medical doctor. Prescribed drugs and herbal products are, for example, likely to produce a dangerous response. Patients should always tell their doctors when seeing alternative practitioners.
Fourthly, there is the problem that alternative practitioners are not usually available at night or at weekends. This means that in an emergency the patient of such a practitioner may be left to fend for him or herself.
In the past those who have written about alternative medicine have fallen into two clearly defined categories. On the one hand there have been those who have dismissed all alternative remedies as irrational and irrelevant. On the other hand there have been those who have praised and supported all aspects of alternative medicine without reservation or criticism. Some doctors have claimed that all alternative practitioners are ignorant and useless. Some alternative therapists claim that they have all the answers to all medical problems.
I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Some forms of alternative medicine are dangerous and useless, other alternative solutions are relatively safe and effective. Some alternative practitioners are rogues, anxious only to make money out of their patients; others are honest, honorable and responsible.
First, remember that orthodox medical practitioners are undoubtedly the best equipped to deal with acute conditions. In an emergency of any kind I suggest that patients call their own primary care physician or visit the nearest hospital. Where there is doubt about a diagnosis then a visit to a medical professional is essential. Alternative therapists are sometimes poor at making diagnoses and can, on occasions, make very serious errors.
Always be on the lookout for “warning signs” before seeking treatments by folks other than your medical doctor. These are tip-offs that you could be headed for trouble:
1. If the alternative practitioner is the seller of the product and accuses the medical community of a conspiracy, watch out! This is a favorite tactic of unscrupulous people.
2. Check to see if the treatment is supported by well-designed clinical trials. With arthritis, for example, the placebo response (response to a sugar pill) can be as high as 40 percent! Therefore, it is critical to see if the treatment has been tested extensively against placebo.
3. If a remedy is touted as being effective for a wide range of medical problems, be very wary. Nothing works for every disease.
4. A treatment referred to as a “miracle cure” or “new discovery” or “discovery suppressed by the medical establishment” should be viewed with skepticism.
5. Catchy words such as “detoxify” or “purify” or “oxidize” should also raise red flags. These words sound impressive but unless there is scientific proof, it is probably a lot of hocus-pocus.
If an alternative health provider is soliciting you as a patient, make sure you look into their qualifications and credentials. A note of caution — just because a provider lists an impressive sounding organization doesn’t mean it is a valid one. Beware of this and look into their reputation. You can also check your state government listings for agencies that regulate and license health care providers.
Don’t be afraid to ask your family doctor or general practitioner for advice. Recent research has shown that the majority of doctors do not disapprove of their patients seeking help from alternative therapists; indeed, they often welcome it. If you are thinking of trying any form of alternative medicine my advice is that you check with your doctor first.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
Glenn Ellis is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics. His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine,” was released in January 2012. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.