What’s the harm?

This will be my first post on alternative medicine. In it, I will try to cover the prominent excuse people give when taking things like homeopathy: “If it doesn’t help me, at least it won’t hurt me”, otherwise known as “what’s the harm?”.

Edzard Ernst, the first Professor of Complementary Medicine (University of Exter) to ever exist, defined complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as “health care which lies for the most part outside the mainstream of conventional medicine”. Alternative medicine, as defined by nsf.gov, refers to “all treatments that have not been proven effective using scientific methods”.

The opposite of the above two is “evidence-based medicine”, defined as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients”. (I’ll take a look at THAT much, much later.)

With the definitions out of the way, let’s look at what proponents of alternative medicine propose, using homeopathy as an example: Proponents of homeopathy are often heard to say that homeopathy has no side effects.*

So, the reasoning goes, if it can’t harm you, you can just take it anyway. (I’ll assume, for the sake of this post, that alternative medicine has no beneficial effects what so ever. I’ll explore this in later posts.)

There are two rebuttals to this:

1) Spending money on alternative treatments can result in you not having money for proper medication. Approximately $34 billion are spent on CAM in the US alone. A direct comparison of a homeopathic fever remedy and ibuprofen showed that the homeopathic remedy cost $7.05, while ibuprofen cost $6.98. That’s not a huge difference and it also doesn’t address whether the homeopathic remedy will actually help against the fever. The difference, $0.07, is negligible, but in favour of the evidence-based treatment.

I might make a later post detailing the cost of the alternative treatment vs the evidence-based treatment, but for now even a cursory look at common treatments shows that “alternative medicine is less expensive than evidence-based medicine” is, at best, misleading.

2) Spending time on alternative treatments can delay access to real treatment.

Bob Marley didn’t allow the amputation of his cancerous toe due to religious reasons and sought out alternative treatments. He died. Former President Warren G. Harding died after his homeopathic practitioner did some weird stuff on him.

In total, What’s the harm? documents around 370,000 deaths, 305,000 injured and nearly $3 billion in economic damages due to pseudo-science, of which surely more than half can be traced back to CAM.

So the next time someone tells you to go to a practitioner of CAM, politely decline, show them the above website and go to a real, licensed doctor. They’re far from perfect, but at least they can do some things right.


*It must be noted at this point that any and every remedy, be it a placebo or a real remedy, can have side effects due to the nocebo effect. What is meant is “no side effect due to the active ingredient”.

Future projects on the topic:

In my next post, I’ll look at why studies in medicine are important.
My third post will deal with a few alternative treatments and look at their benefits.
A series of posts sometime in the future will look at evidence-based medicine, what it is and how much evidence there really is.

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