How many Americans are helped by alternative healing practices each and every day? Whether it’s using Echinacea or vitamin C to ward off an impending cold, therapeutic touch or Reiki to speed up the recovery of post-surgical cardiac patients, or mistletoe extract and Essiac tea to treat cancer—alternative practices are gaining popularity because they work. Nutrition, at the very least, seems to be gaining a small foothold in doctors’ minds, as more and more research shows the connection between high fat diets and obesity with heart disease and diabetes.
Despite mounting consumer pressure to integrate alternative healing modalities into the medical mainstream in the U.S., doctors’ lack of intellectual curiosity is puzzling considering the wealth of knowledge that they do possess and their commitment and unique position to help those who are sick. Whatever is behind their close-mindedness, their unwillingness to consider all best practices has been abetted by the conservative nature of our mainstream medical and academic institutions.
In all fairness, this close-mindedness also needs to be considered in a landscape where any variance in standard practice risks an accusation of malpractice. Further, doctors are increasingly required to limit the services that they provide to their patients in order to satisfy insurance companies’ cost-saving mandates. Cost savings is obviously important, but not when it squelches doctors’ critical thinking and openness to new creative ideas.
The parting shot in many of my one-on-one conversations with doctors about alternative care over the years has amounted to “Where’s the proof?” Their unwillingness to even investigate other forms of healing is akin to a closed court approach which refuses to recognize any new witnesses. This happens despite the fact that their patient may be standing right before their eyes, demonstrating the very proof that they claim to need. And despite the fact that the patient’s health improvements are supported by physicians’ examinations, lab reports, tracking growth spurts, and pulmonary function tests—documentation that is not considered anecdotal evidence. Since the particular patient I have in mind (my son) went from poor health and a fatal prognosis to excellent health in a few years’ time and then stayed in good health over two decades, shouldn’t that pique the doctors’ curiosity?
Admittedly, most of the research on alternative modalities does not follow the double-blind control group model so highly regarded by Western scientists and some reported findings have been based on anecdotal evidence. None of this explains, however, why there are so few initiatives to conduct research on the efficacy of alternative healing modalities according to American standards. The most obvious explanation is money. Research requires funding, and much of the funding for research lies in the hands of multi-national pharmaceutical corporations and the National Institutes of Health. In addition, research topics are controlled by medically conservative groups such as the American Medical Association and the chiefs of medicine at top-funded university-based health systems.
No doubt the pharmaceutical giants correctly surmise that their financial interests would not be furthered by research into alternative healing. Drug companies have little incentive to back research that might prove, for example, that an over-the-counter herbal remedy is both a safer and more effective treatment for minor depression than pharmaceutical drugs requiring an expensive lifelong prescription.
But this doesn’t explain the paucity of research on alternative healing in the broader scientific community. Again, money and bias. Even those private foundations and government offices that have a mission (and perhaps Congressional directive) to study new treatments, such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation or National Institutes of Health, are at the mercy of the powers-that-be with the fiscal or scholarly muscle to sponsor research. Neither the smaller manufacturing companies of alternative remedies nor the fledgling professional associations of alternative practitioners in the U.S. are in a position to fund high level research.
If you doubt my conclusion that those with the purse-strings rule the realm of research, consider that the Genentech Corporation, which manufactures the cystic fibrosis (CF) “specialty” medication, Pulmozyme, charges a patient $36,000 for one year’s worth of this medicine (2014 dollars). If you have a decent health insurance policy, most of this is paid for by the health insurance company. But a little math gives us a prime example of the unholy intersection of health and money: $36,000 a year times the approximate 30,000 people in the U.S. with CF, all of whom are now encouraged to use Pulmozyme, even if their symptoms are not severe—we’re talking about $1.4 billion a year in gross revenue from just one medication. That’s quite a hefty return on a pharmaceutical company’s investment in research and development, especially when that R&D was likely sponsored by NIH and the American taxpayer in the first place.
Without question, there has been insufficient research on alternative healing in the U.S. What is sorely needed, instead of superficial judgments and casual dismissals or, worse, unscientific claims of quackery, is research conducted by professionals who have been properly trained in the areas that they are researching. Just as one would not give much weight to opinions about organic farming that are offered by farmers who have only ever farmed using manmade pesticides and chemical fertilizers, one should hardly give much weight to opinions about alternative healing that are offered by professionals whose training and practice has been limited to conventional western medicine. To put it a different way, we wouldn’t appoint pulmonologists to study the reproductive system, nor dentists to study mood disorders. Researchers of alternative healing need to at least have a basic understanding of what it is they’re studying.
Further, the randomized, placebo-based, control group, double-blind “gold standard” research model that was originally designed to test pharmaceutical products and medication dosages may need to be set aside in favor of more appropriate alternative research models that can measure changes in energy flow, vitality, immune response, cellular-level changes, and so on. European institutions have been conducting rigorous, high quality research on alternative healing approaches for decades. It’s time for American doctors to suppress their “only American” bias for a moment and consider these findings. Unbiased, transparent, and high quality scientific research conducted by a cooperative team of seasoned conventional and alternative practitioners is long overdue!
We need to be more open to everything. In his book, Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Andrew Weil steps well outside the norm by hailing “the placebo effect” or power of suggestion. What difference does it make, Dr. Weil poses, whether the effect is real by some sort of rigid scientific standard or whether it works because the patient believes it does? In the end, it works, therefore it is real. This fascinating mind-body connection also needs much more investigation.
The mind-body connection or placebo effect cannot be given credit for all rebounds, however. For example, my son’s alternative healing was begun when he was a baby. Babies cannot understand symptoms or grasp what changes are taking place inside of their bodies. Babies cannot judge the effectiveness of acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy, nutrition, or herbal medicine. It didn’t matter what I thought about the value of alternative healing either; my son was far too young to be influenced by my hopes or conclusions. Yet, his health rebound began soon after starting acupuncture under age one and continued, using all five of those modalities, until his health became inarguably strong by age five. What is indisputable is that his body responded and his health rebounded, all of which was unexpected and thoroughly documented by conventional western physicians. Now age 23, he is a strong young man who stands six feet tall and often wraps his warm arm around the shoulders of a mother who refused to accept the doctors’ pessimistic world view. Beating the odds…Alternative Medicine