As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.
Cardinal J. H. Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University, 1852

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Don't write off alternative medicine.

The New Scientist says "Why the medicine your take could actually be bad for your health" (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist 30/11/2019 pp34-39. Online, behind a paywall).

There are multiple problems. Drug approval by the authorities in the US and Europe is being fast-tracked without proper testing and once drugs are on the market they are being prescribed for things that they weren't intended for. The pressure, of course, comes from the pharmaceutical industry ("follow the money").

Doctors prescribe drugs even if they don't know whether they are effective "because they want to do something rather than nothing". That is understandable and it would be hard to criticise doctors for doing it. They are prescribing hope. Surely it is better to than saying 'sorry, there's nothing I can do about it'. And there remains the placebo effect: it might still do some good even if there's no physical mechanism for it to help.

But if you are prescribing hope through the placebo effect, surely you could use something other than an expensive drug that might have harmful side-effects? You can't just prescribe a sweetie and say 'this might help you through the placebo effect': there has to be something that allows both the doctor and the patient to believe that the drug will work. So why not complementary and alternative medicine? Herbs, meditation, and even homeopathy?

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