Written by Jingyi Luo on January 16, 2015
Alternative medicine is defined as the practice of using non-conventional approaches in place of traditional western medicine. These approaches range from relatively more credible means such as herbal remedies and massage therapy, to the more dubious, such as faith healing. However, these methods share a common denominator—a lack of sound scientific basis. Despite this significant shortcoming, alternative medicine has risen in popularity in recent years. What are the deeper reasons behind our society’s fascination with alternative medicine? Just how credible are these weird and wonderful cures and treatments?
In a 2011 article from The Atlantic, author David Freedman examines the greatest cause for the rise in alternative medicine—namely, the failures of traditional medicine. Science is struggling to keep up with the spread of these modern epidemics—such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease—and frustrations are increasing, driving patients and even medical professionals to turn to other means of treatment and care. Freedman concedes that alternative medicine relies enormously on the placebo effect, or the improvement to a patient’s condition resulting not from any actual medication, but from the expectation that the given treatment will be helpful. He simultaneously criticizes many modern pharmaceuticals for producing treatments that, according to experimental results, are often little to no better than placebos themselves. He points out that between traditional and alternative approaches, alternative medicine has the upper hand due to higher patient expectations and closer relationships between practitioners and patients. He concludes that despite the lack of scientific proof of the effectiveness of acupuncture and massage therapy, these alternative practices make up for the shortcomings of modern medicine by providing patients with emotional support. Although the benefits have not been scientifically proven, Freedman urges modern medical practitioners to give these seemingly ludicrous practices another chance.
Paul Offit, in a 2013 article for The Washington Post, takes a more skeptical and contrasting view. In his argument, Offit lists a variety of traditional drugs—such as aspirin isolated from the willow plant—that were once categorized as alternative herbal treatments that have since become federally approved and adopted into modern medicine. He asserts that alternative medicine that actually works is simply medicine; conversely, alternative medicine that proves to be ineffective, such as several natural plant extract products, simply does not meet statistical expectations and even harmed patients in experimental trials.
So what is the verdict? I agree that we shouldn’t dismiss most types of alternative medicine as completely useless; after all, many of these treatments have survived for hundreds of years, and the placebo effect is clinically proven. But at the same time, we should exercise caution and discretion; forgoing solid, scientific western pharmaceuticals to bank all hope on these uncertain approaches is even more ill-advised.
“Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?” NCCAM. National Health Institution, 15 July 2014. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
Freedman, David. “The Triumph of New-Age Medicine.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 7 June 2011. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
Offit, Paul. “Alternative Medicines Are Popular, but Do Any of Them Really Work?”Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.