Wired magazine have just posted an interesting story featuring the parents of two boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What makes the story compelling is that both parents are medical doctors with one holding a PHD in biology.
When the boys were diagnosed, the future looked bleak and hopeless. As their parents searched for answers and possible treatments they became aware of a growing alternative treatment community claiming radical transformations and even cures for Austism.
Thus began their journey away from what their years of training had taught them. Their alternative medicine journey ended when both parents simultaneously decided to cease the children’s supplements and restrictive diet. Neither noticed a discernible difference in the behaviour of the boys.
Interwoven with the story are comments from various medical practitioners covering different sides of the “integrative medicine” debate. Of particular note was Yale physician Dr David Katz who rejects any practice proven to cause harm but insists medical practitioners must maintain an open mind. This open mindedness is required, he contends, to correct a broken medical system.
“With internal medicine, once I’ve tried everything the textbooks tell me, I’m done,” he says. “But with integrative medicine, I always have something to try. I never run out of options.”
Dr Katz, though seems to be advocating exactly what many alternative therapy proponents level at the “medical industrial complex”: making a profit at the expense of the sick. If a proven therapy does not work, wouldn’t it be unethical to then suggest a multitude of unproven therapies? Surely this is a practice of taking money from the vulnerable and sick?
Australia’s top medical research body, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), reviewed 225 research papers and confirmed that homeopathy is not effective for treating any health condition. Despite this Americans spent $2.9 billion on homeopathic treatments in 2007 alone.
The Wired article makes some excellent points. We all know that the current system is flawed. We know the medical industry has learned much but is still largely ignorant on many aspects of health. We all have a story where a doctor provided substandard care, misdiagnosed or had appalling interpersonal skills. But rather than find another doctor for better service or a second opinion, many are seeking a new system.
With autism, mainstream medicine offers no hope of a cure and little in the way of treatment options. Shocked, the Laidlers listened to their doctor explain that Ben might develop normally, or he might be profoundly disabled. Only time would tell.
How does a parent deal with such news? How do we cope when a professional correctly admits, they just don’t have the answer?
Steven Novella is a neurologist who, like David Katz, works for Yale Medical School. Though they share an employer, their perspectives on medicine differ drastically. Novella talks a bit like an astronomer who can’t believe his department has hired an astrologer.
Novella agrees that the profession has many issues, but rightly asserts that we shouldn’t give up on rigorous standards just because the existing system isn’t perfect.
Interestingly, one person trying to improve the currently flawed system is British epidemiologist Ben Goldacre:
“Just because there are problems with aircraft design, that doesn’t mean magic carpets really fly,” he writes in his book Bad Pharma.
We are all aware of the snake oil salesman but for some reason, many now assume that is the doctor they visit, the human face of evil big pharma. Yet isn’t it interesting that the almost too good to be true claims are usually made by those promoting and profiting from alternative medicines.
Goldacre is campaigning to have the results of all drug trials published, not just the favourable ones. Here is an opportunity for those concerned with the integrity of the medical industry to fight for more honesty and openness thereby improving the only real system we have. So why aren’t all the alternative medicine proponents giving Goldacre their full support?
Mass overdose on homeopathic medicine – no deaths reported