Muddy waters? Not at all!
You say that you don’t see complementary/placebo medicine as competing with scientific medicine. However, not all placebo practitioners see it that way. Many peddlers of placebo cures directly attack what they sometimes term “allopathic” medicine as causing harm, arranged to make money for “big pharma” or who-knows-what other ills. Here’s a quick sampling of web pages and opinions which it took me about two minutes to find.
“Antibiotics kill bad as well as healthy bacteria. This results in weakening of immune system. Homeopathic medicines strengthen the immune system by building resistance to sickness. They do not disturb or hamper digestive system.”
“Allopathy’s strength lies in intervention. When you need a shot of penicillin, you need a shot of penicillin. When your body needs insulin, no therapy other than insulin injections will do. If surgery is required, then surgery is the solution. Allopathy’s weakness lies in the simple fact that removing the symptoms of a disease does not necessarily remove the cause of the disease. Its greatest weakness is that many of its cures are killing people. One reason many people have left conventional medicine for healthier alternatives is that death is not an acceptable side effect.”
“[The World Health Organisation] wants to remain ignorant about AIDS, because it is under the control of the big Multinational Companies manufacturing the so-called HIV-detection kits and the highly toxic drugs like AZT, which products they must sell by any means to make the big bucks.”
Now, it’s easy for you and me to dismiss these as the ravings of cranks, and indeed you then say “you think most people are aware that they [evidence-based and alternative medicine] are different in conception”. Presumably you think this is important. If people are aware that antibiotics are a sensible (although not a guaranteed) treatment for pneumonia but that homeopathic remedies are unsuitable, then they will steer clear of them – despite the fact that they are readily available.
How does it help this vital distinction between evidence-based and placebo medicine to be maintained if placebo medicine shares shelf-space with evidence-based cures in Boots? If NHS doctors provide imaginary treatments on request? If evidence-based medicine is offered side-by-side with placebo medicine, as birthing pools are provided side-by-side with epidurals in maternity wards? How can the lines not be blurred in patients’ minds? And do you not share my concern about the possibility of harm once these lines are successfully blurred? This is where the muddy waters really are, I believe.
Yes, there is no market for herbs on broken legs, but there is a big market for homeopathy which is no more magical, but which presents a more credible face to the western world. Homeopathic pills look like medicines (which partly accounts for their effectiveness, although studies show that saline injections – a more impressive intervention – can be even more effective in pain relief for example) and so they appeal to a moderately medically-literate audience. But that appeal depends on blurring the distinction which you identified. And it works – the market for homeopathy in the UK is estimated at £30m annually (£4m on the NHS). For complementary medicine as a whole it is £1.6bn. That’s a lot of money to spend on magic.
I agree, that if it were the case that all promoters of homeopathic medicine (and other placebo interventions) were eager to direct their patients towards evidence-based interventions for more serious or urgent situations (regardless of the inevitable cognitive dissonance that this requires), then they would do considerably less harm. But your personal experience of this kind of co-operation happening in China or on the NHS doesn’t change the fact that it is not the norm. When researchers visit high street homeopathic vendors, they are prescribed useless sugar pills as a malaria prophylaxis and told not to bother with evidence-based immunisation. When patients visit websites for information about homeopathy, they may read information which presents evidence-based medicine as a cure which is worse than the disease. When practitioners of placebo medicine are criticised in the press, they often attempt to silence their critics by legal means, as happened recently to Simon Singh, heedless of the fact that open scientific debate is essential for determining best options for patient care.
The upshot of all of these behaviours could be and is that patients die who might well have lived had they not been fed this misinformation. The further consequence is that it becomes easier for evidence-free attacks on mainstream medicine, such as the anti-vaccination campaign, to take hold in the public consciousness. This seems to me like far too high a price to pay for the temporary alleviation of chronic pain in some patients, or the illusion of relief from self-limiting conditions for others.
We know that pneumonia kills, but that it can be effectively treated by antibiotics. We know that a lot of people are unaware of the fact that homeopathy is a useless treatment for pneumonia, because homeopathic treatments are readily available, and if no-one thought they would be effective, market forces would ensure that – like herbs for broken legs – they would be nowhere to be found. People who believe that homeopathic remedies will treat their pneumonia will likely die. Homeopaths have a strong vested interest in maintaining this belief. Homeopathic pills in Boots and the presence of an institution such as the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital are very effective in helping to maintain this belief.
Your initial question to me was “why are you so cross about this?” My question to you is “why aren’t you?”
The reason I am not cross about it is that I don’t think there is any evidence that a significant number of people are being harmed by choosing to go to alternative practitioners. Do you know of any? Its true that these advertisements appear to be very misleading, but I think people have enough sense to know that they need to be in hospital with severe chest or abdominal pain and that they need a surgeon for a broken leg.
They go to the alternative practitioners only when they have discovered that they have the kind of symptoms which are painful or distressing but not due to any disorders that conventional medicine can help except by support and the doctor’s continuing interest and concern. Sadly, that may be more forthcoming from a homeopath.
And, as I have said there is something about these miracle cures that has a very strong appeal to human nature. I’m not sure that one can or should legislate against it unless you can show that harm has resulted on a significant scale. What is significant? Well, there is undoubtedly a considerable morbidity and mortality arising from the side effects of drugs and the mistakes that happen in the conventional medicine system. Is the harm caused by inappropriate use of alternative medicine on the same scale?