Last weekend there was outrage from The Daily Mail that Prince Charles had being lobbying government ministers to give more space for complementary medicine on the NHS. This provoked a piece on the BBC Today programme (at 0833) on Saturday morning. In this UCL’s Professor David Colquhoun made short work of Tory MP David Tredinnick, who was attempting to defend homeopathy, the target of choice of those wanting to drive complementary medicine to the lunatic fringe. Indeed, very few advocates of complementary techniques do a decent job of defending them in public forums, quickly resorting to dodgy mumbo-jumbo and dubious scientific studies. And yet there is a case to be made.
I find it a bit awkward to make this case myself. I have not used such therapies, and nor am I likely to. I am simply in too deep with conventional scientific scepticism to give any credence to their supporting patter - ”energy fields”, “life forces”, or homeopathy’s “like cures like”. And without that, I suspect the techniques lose a lot of their impact. However, people I like and respect do use selected complementary techniques, and they have value.
The best way to start a defence of complementary medicine is attack. Conventional, evidence-based medicine has its own weaknesses. The technique depends on breaking health issues down into bite-sized problems, and then testing therapies to treat them using statistical tests against a placebo. Once a therapy passes this test, it then gets rolled out to anybody suffering from the condition concerned. This approach benefits from scientific rigour, and has steadily improved the effectiveness of conventional medicine over the generations. More recently the focus of the technique has been more on finding what works than necessarily why. This makes it less vulnerable to dismissing therapies that do not work in theory (as happened in some spectacular early medical failures in the 19th century over the importance of hygiene and clean water). But it has certain blind spots designed into it.
The first problem concerns placebos. The reason why this is the null hypothesis against which therapies are tested is that placebos have a measurable beneficial effect in many cases. The main scientific sceptical explanation for any benefits of complementary therapies is that it is a placebo effect. A supporter might go further: complementary therapists understand how placebos work better than conventional therapists: it isn’t just a placebo, it’s a top class placebo. But you can’t test a placebo against a placebo. Back in the 1980s a practicing GP told me how one of his favoured techniques was to prescribe harmless sugar pills to his patients, and he claimed great benefits from doing so. Surely if that sort of thing is allowed on the NHS, why can’t other placebo therapies? And the answer isn’t to ban all placebos – though doubtless that is the approach taken by conventional medicine advocates; something tells me that my GP wouldn’t be allowed to prescribe his sugar pills nowadays.
The second problem is the fragmentary approach of conventional medicine. Fragmentation has been elevated to a positive religion in the NHS. You can’t experience the service without being handed to several different professionals of different shapes and sizes, each with their carefully rationalised boundaries. Each handoff creates risks, and stories of catastrophic breakdowns in hospital treatments abound - patients left for hours on trolleys, starving to death, or forced to drink water from plant pots – and even more cases where post hospital after care breaks down. One of the few common themes across complementary disciplines is that they are holistic. Indeed the very idea of holistic treatments (now very much part of modern management jargon) was originally derived from complementary medicine, or that is where I heard it first, anyway. You see a single therapist, who gathers as much information about you and your condition as she can, integrates it, and then moves on to treatment. The diagnosis is likely to be a large part of the cure in its own right. And yet scientific testing of complementary therapies is liable to start only after the diagnosis has ended. All this proves is that if you go out to a shop and buy homeopathic remedy, you are on to a hiding to nothing. That does not prove that the complete homeopathic therapeutic process is useless.
There is a third problem. Evidence has to be gathered by using large numbers of people. In this process there is very limited opportunity to distinguish between the different needs of individuals. As a result the evidence tends to show not that the therapy works for everybody, or even most people, but that on average it is better than the placebo. The result is that lots of people are prescribed treatments that are, for them as individuals, useless. How many people do you know who complain of medication that gives unpleasant side-effects but does not seem to be doing them any good? The scientific evidence says they could be right, but is rather helpless after that. Complementary therapies are much less likely to have side effects, though they don’t have the proven benefits either. I do wonder whether for some conditions the overall cost-benefit balance of complementary therapies against conventional ones is constructed fairly.
And finally we need to address the question that few advocates of scientific method will admit to. That scientific rigour has its costs. There are areas of potential knowledge into which it is incapable of reaching. The higher your standard of rigour, the less that is capable of being revealed. The method is too blunt an instrument to deal with many types of issue. It can’t handle too many variables at a time, especially if they are interdependent; and any ideas that mess with constancy of the laws of nature are ruled out a priori. It struggles to find ways of testing mind over matter propositions, which often play a part in complementary medicine’s thinking. How many people do you know who feel unwell, go to doctor, who commissions tests that just don’t find anything? You don’t have to take on mystical ideas to see that the bluntness of conventional diagnosis leaves huge areas of illness as a mystery. And when this happens conventional medicine is worse than useless. It creates stress and frustration, and doctors start to disbelieve the patient, making the problem worse, not better. Complementary techniques are much better at handling patients suffering from these sorts of problems.
So what are my conclusions? A little more humility on the part of the advocates of conventional medicine is warranted. They don’t know everything; they are not very good of handling conditions that are difficult to diagnose; they are too sanguine about the collateral damage arising from evidence based treatments on those they do not help; and they fail to see how the fragmentary way they handle problems is bad for patient health. With this humility they might understand that once they have eliminated the nice, well-defined illnesses in their comfort zone – cancer, heart disease, strokes, bacterial infections et al - being open to patients who want complementary treatments is often the best way forward. And I haven’t even mentioned the corrupting influence of big pharma.