The Bias against Alternative Healing

An ongoing blog about alternative healing

I was raised to have the deepest respect, even awe, for doctors. This is surely a widespread opinion. Becoming a doctor is a revered profession throughout the world—something that only the “best and brightest” among us could possibly achieve. As a result, it is difficult to question someone with such highly specialized knowledge and elevated social stature. Most of us have not undergone rigorous medical training ourselves, so we depend on our doctor’s good judgment about what’s wrong and which treatment will help. We are literally at the mercy of whatever our doctor knows or doesn’t know, and whether or not he or she has a discerning and open mind.

Perhaps our admiration has pressured conventional doctors to act as if they know exactly what to do at all times and can essentially do no wrong. This is clearly not the attitude of every doctor. However, even at their best, too many conventional doctors have decided that, while their perfect knowledge may not be perfectly complete, only they can add to that knowledge base because all other paths are incorrect. This perspective is not only seriously flawed, it creates a reality in which—because of conventional medicine’s unwillingness to acknowledge its limitations—any number of conditions, diseases, and states of poor health go uncorrected or even untreated. Further, individuals unfortunate enough to have one of these “untreatable” conditions are strongly discouraged from attempting unconventional approaches, receiving criticism from their doctor and no financial assistance from their health insurance company. This is precisely what I experienced!

Even though the cystic fibrosis (CF) specialists at both Children’s National Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital would be the first to admit that they don’t know how to cure CF or guarantee a long healthy life for my son, none of them have shown any interest in how alternative healing approaches may have contributed to his good health. They admit that they cannot explain why his health rebounded completely by age 5 and how this good health continues into young adulthood whereas most young people with CF are not. A good number of my son’s peers have undergone double-lung and liver transplants by the age of 20. My son has never even been hospitalized. Yet the doctors have no inclination whatsoever to ask the all-important question why. What makes this situation so unacceptable, is the fact that other best practices do, in fact, exist and many of them have been shown to have quite a significant and positive impact on supposedly untreatable conditions. My beautiful 23-year-old healthy son Russell is living proof.

There is more to this bias than meets the eye. The bias against alternative modalities is so entrenched among medical doctors in the U.S. that it is next to impossible for patients to receive any guidance, let alone support, in their exploration of alternative care. Much of this bias stems from the fact that some forms of alternative healing are based on completely different scientific theories and assumptions about how the human body works and how healing occurs.

Acupuncture, for example, is based on the belief that a fundamental and universal source of energy follows a system of pathways called meridians throughout the body, entering and exiting at an organized series of points. In August of 2014, my cousin (who is an energy medicine practitioner) and I attended a symposium in sponsored by the Maryland-based Life Is Yoga Institute at which a scientist from South Korea presented findings (including videos of meridians that had absorbed a blue dye inside the body of live animals) that confirmed the physical existence of both meridians and nodes (meridian entry and exit points). As these points are stimulated with fingertips or tools (special needles), the energy flow is rekindled and the body’s organs and five elements of existence—metal, wood, water, earth, and fire—are returned to their balanced state.

A conventionally trained medical doctor from the U.S. has no framework within which to even conceptualize, let alone believe in, such a system of energy. This is ironic since this system of energy touches on electro-magnetic theories that a western scientist would have no trouble understanding. Acupuncture is, however, a very sophisticated and organized practice that literally billions of Chinese have utilized to good effect for several thousand years. It’s tempting to make the argument that acupuncture must be a best practice simply by virtue of its extraordinarily long-standing tradition. Surely, if the Traditional Chinese Medicine approach did not actually have healing properties, the Chinese population would not have grown to the current 1.4 billion people. By comparison, allopathic or conventional Western medicine as we know it has been around for less than two hundred years. If you insist that western medicine’s roots go back thousands of years to Greece, or more accurately to Egypt, I’m afraid you’ll simply be confronted with what’s currently considered alternative herbal medicine at its best.

As with acupuncture, the alternative modalities of homeopathy, osteopathy, nutrition, and herbal medicine endure similarly uninformed biases. These concepts of alternative medicine are almost too simple and too subtle for conventional doctors to cope with. Medical doctors spend anywhere from 6 to 12 years receiving highly sophisticated training in a specialized technology couched in an ancient language (Latin). The extensive training and long hours of medical school; the need to have visible or at least palpable evidence of illness; the need to have medication-based treatments pass the double-blind placebo-based controlled clinical trial standard—it’s all too much to give up!

This entrenched attitude is damaging to the millions of Americans who suffer from diseases or conditions that are not cured or even effectively controlled by conventional medicine. And if those individuals haven’t had the opportunity or motivation to educate themselves on alternative healing, as I did in my desperation to save my son, they continue to suffer when their distress might have been alleviated by alternative healing. The list of prevalent ailments in the U.S. that don’t respond to conventional treatment—arthritis, cancer, and immunodeficiency conditions among them—is endless. However, growing numbers of individuals suffering from just these conditions are seeking out different modes of alternative healing and discovering that they do help.

Despite any number of verifiable studies on alternative healing that have been conducted in Europe and elsewhere outside of the United States, the success stories about alternative approaches in this country are summarily dismissed as anecdotal. I characterize the dismissal of anecdotal evidence as monstrously cavalier. For example, I casually mentioned to a pediatrician acquaintance one day that my son was receiving acupuncture treatments to help with his cystic fibrosis. I had enjoyed wonderful quasi-political conversations with this individual in the past and had mistaken his progressive views for an overall open mind. “Oh, that’s just anecdotal evidence,” he said. No questions: “Does it help? How is your son? Do you think it may have had an impact?” Nothing. My son’s atypical health may well constitute a mere sample of one, but it ought to be impressive enough or at least puzzling enough to get someone’s attention. If conventional doctors require double blind, control group studies, and FDA approval to be convinced of anything, then by all means, bring on the researchers. I find their unwillingness to explore and scrutinize alternative healing incredible. 

Is my story dismissed because I am “just a mother”? Or is it dismissed because the theoretical underpinnings of energy medicine and other types of alternative healing are simply too big a stretch for the conventionally-trained physician? There are probably a lot of contributing factors.

Surely there is a terrible racial and cultural bias in the continued doubting of acupuncture, for instance, with its three thousand-year-old history and continued widespread use in the East. And herbal remedies, documented in the Bible and other ancient scriptures, have been used to good effect since time immemorial. Both homeopathy and osteopathy evolved right alongside “allopathy” in the late 1800s, and they were extremely popular in this country until they were outmaneuvered by allopaths in blatantly political and economically motivated campaigns. The fact that allopathic medicine “won” that battle does not justify or fully explain the complete dismissal of these strikingly different and promising modes of healing. Has everyone forgotten that both homeopathy and osteopathy were invented by conventionally-trained physicians?

Substantial research on alternative healing has been conducted overseas, supplemented by the experiences of millions of Americans (and a handful of their converted doctors). But because of the arrogant bias that anything outside of the U.S. must be inferior, the mountain of evidence and findings from non-U.S. research has failed to influence doctors’ thinking here at home—let alone catalyze the systemic change that is truly needed. The bias against alternative healing remains firmly rooted.

Alternative Medicine
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