There’s a breathtakingly ignorant comment that has done the rounds of late, and it goes like this: there are only two types of medicine, that which works and alternative medicine. This suggests that modern medicine is an open house, a “come all ye” of every therapy and treatment that has been proven to work, while alternatives are the festering dump of scoundrels, fraudsters and quacks who prey on the weak and desperate. As quantum physicist Richard Feynman said of very daft theories, the statement is so far off the grid that it isn’t even wrong.
Modern medicine is an interesting amalgam of church and industry: as a church it has set beliefs about the body and disease, and any other opinions are dismissed as heresy, and, as an industry, its primary purpose is to deliver drugs to the sick
To maintain its beliefs and purpose, it will—if absolutely necessary—commit fraud, massage data, and sneer at any alternative. This modus operandi is brought into sharp focus by our Special Report this month on cancer. Inspired by the recent High Court struggle by Sally Roberts to block radiotherapy on her son, Neon, it reviews the evidence for the efficacy of conventional cancer treatments, and the unseemly way it has traduced promising alternative therapies.
It’s a story of spin and half-truths that has sometimes even beguiled the oncologist, not to mention the poor patient and the ever-obliging media. A favourite trick of the researcher, for example, has been to use relative risk instead of the more meaningful absolute risk when presenting its conclusions; in relative terms, the chemotherapy patient has a 50 per cent chance of living a further five years, but in absolute terms, his chances are just 2 per cent.
Medicine is as fast and loose with the truth when it comes to assessing alternatives, as Dr Nicholas Gonzalez found out to his cost when his enzyme therapy was selected by the National Cancer Institute for a controlled study. It ended in tears. Bias from the outset resulted in a poorly-conducted trial that yielded the results the head researcher wanted; he, by the by, had been a pioneer of a new chemotherapy regime that was being tested against Gonzalez’s therapy, and so independence was impossible.
Ultimately, we have to conclude that health and disease is far too important an issue to be left in the hands of the church of medicine