A poll on “alternative” (aka useless) medicine

April 26, 2012 • 6:04 am

UPDATE: I don’t think you see the latest results until after you vote (otherwise it just displays an initial state), and you can vote only once.  Therefore, if you just voted, come back and report the latest percentages.

Here’s an update: 84% NO at 11:52 AM Chicago time. GCM.


I’m gonna cooperate with P.Z. on this one, because it’s an important issue.  The Economist is conducting a poll: “Should alternative medicine be taught in medical schools?”  “Alternative medicine” appears to mean “homeopathy,” and The Economist notes that courses in such alternative therapies, though dwindling, are still taught in UK medical schools.

Woo is slightly outstripping real medicine in the poll, so you might want to make your opinion known.  I’m not going to call readers’ attention to polls very often, and this time there’s no prize for voting, but—unlike the cat/dog/baby poll—this is a serious matter, for lives could be at stake.

As of 8 a.m. Chicago time:

122 thoughts on “A poll on “alternative” (aka useless) medicine

  1. Sometimes I think B.S. like this *should* be taught, for what should be obvious reasons. Unfortunately, the reasons seen’t so obvious to many.

    1. Only here the actual wording of the question is “should alternative medicine be treated on a par with the traditional sort and taught in medical schools?”, which rather rules out your implied approach.

  2. I’ve done my part.

    The poll had already swung dramatically toward “no” when I got there a few minutes after you posted.

  3. Voted “No”, of my own free will too 🙂

    The No vote is now leading, but not by much. The question is a little open to interpretation, as alternative medicine could be taught under the subject “Things That We Thought Worked in the Past, But Are Actually Wrong-101”

    1. I agree. New doctors need to know what they are up against when their patients come to them singing the praises of bogus remedies.

    2. Much the same way that Intelligent Design should be taught in a Science class; as an example of epic fail.

  4. I have mixed feelings on this issue. Personally, I prefer doctors who don’t always jump to pharmaceutical or surgical remedies for problems. If I have a problem that might be controllable through diet or some sort of reasonable lifestyle change, then I am all for trying that change before I think about taking medicines. I’m not anti-medicine. If I have a bacterial infection, I’m perfectly willing to take an antibiotic for it. If I fall and break my leg, I will happily go to a medical doctor to have it set–and I will most likely use whatever pain relievers I need to keep myself functioning while I heal.

    However, I think doctors don’t spend enough time impressing upon patients how they might manage more chronic conditions without medication. This could just be a necessity of dealing with American patients–many people seem perfectly happy to seek their salvation through pills. A migraine sufferer, for instance, might go years having constant migraines before finding out there’s a possibility of decreasing their occurrence through changes in diet or lifestyle. Patients with chronic pain seem to be constantly bombarded with more and more pills, rather than having someone actually work with them to determine ways they might be able to manage the pain or prevent its onset.

    I suppose it would be more accurate to say I’d like doctors to be taught to look at patients holistically, rather than as whatever symptoms walk through the door. I think THAT is the mindset that sends people off seeking alternative treatments. An acupuncturist or a chiropractor (in my experience) is more likely to look at my whole life when I come in with a problem. A medical doctor, on the other hand, might spend five or ten minutes in the room before deciding to stick a needle in my butt and send me home for the day.

    I think people should have access to doctors who are trained to view a person as a whole–that would dramatically improve quality of care. And I think, once that change begins to happen, you will find fewer people who find it necessary to turn to alternative medicine to find someone willing to take that approach.

    1. Yeah, but diet and lifestyle changes are technically MEDICINE, not alternative medicine, so you can still vote “no”.

      1. Right. I was going to say the exact same thing.

        I have had several doctors over the years who have FIRST recommended lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, etc) before reaching for the prescription pad. That’s not “alternative” medicine. That’s “medicine”.

        Just recently, my cholesterol was substantially higher than it had been, and the doc and I had a conversation about my feelings about statins. When I said, “I rather like my liver,” we decided to work on diet/exercise first.

        I’m 20 pounds lighter (in no small part thanks to getting a dog that needs regular walks).

    2. Well said, Delectable Vegan.

      Whilst there are many bogus ‘treatments’ out there it’s simplistic to say that all alternatives to allopathic medicine are useless/bogus.

      1. And by your use of the term ‘allopathic’ you identify yourself as a homeopath. It’s nonsense. It doesn’t work. If a treatment can be shown to work, let’s use it. If not, let’s not.

      2. Lifestyle changes have nothing to do with “alternative” medicine. Any doctor, confronted with a patient with a chronic cough, will first ask “Do you smoke?” and, if the answer is yes, suggest that the patient stop.

        My own doctor, on the infrequent occasions I have a check-up, asks me how much alcohol I drink, weighs me, and suggests I eat fewer calories and take more exercise.

        Perfectly sensible advice, and not remotely “alternative”.

        I suppose homeopathy and the like could be taught in the same way that Ptolemaic astronomy is taught – as ideas that have been proven bunk.

        1. Yes, I agree that doctors will often suggest broad lifestyle changes. Though I think most of those suggestions are common sense enough that they may not even qualify as medicine.

          In my experience, those who practice “alternative” forms of treatment tend to be much more specific. For example, coaching a person on specific foods that might be avoided for triggering migraines (and not just common things like caffeine or msg).

          Perhaps my experience is an outlier, but most doctors don’t have much to say about diet other than to eat less–or perhaps to say a person should avoid saturated fats, foods with a lot of cholesterol, etc in order to reduce blood pressure or cholesterol.

          I find it’s much more likely a naturopath will take the time to work with patients in regards to finding problem items in a person’s diet–a patient might benefit from a low amine diet for controlling migraines or fibromyalgia, for example.

          My main point is that when you use a term as broad as “alternative medicine” without a definition, it doesn’t really say much. I think to many people, anything that isn’t surgery or pharmaceuticals ends up being categorized as “alternative”. That’s the gap I see in modern medicine (at least here in my experience). And as others have mentioned, some doctors are better about these things than others. However, I think you run the risk that these things will simply not be available to be learned if you apply a blanket statement that all “alternative” medicine should be excluded from medical education.

    3. Yeah that is all fine and dandy, but if you want to get a chronic medical condition analyzed in the way you describe you better have one hell of a good insurance plan or a ton of money.

    4. You said, “An acupuncturist or a chiropractor (in my experience) is more likely to look at my whole life when I come in with a problem.” So is a priest or a rabbi – why not go them with your back pain? They have the same amount of medical training as a chiropractor or acupuncturist. And they’ll be less likely to hurt you with their “treatment.” As a spine doctor, I often see patients who were misdiagnosed or made worse by chiropractors. Chiropractic is a religion, not a science. And chiropractors are not doctors. It amazes me how few people understand this. If you hurt your ankle and the chiropractor said, “I can fix this by grabbing it and jerking it as hard as I can until it makes a cracking sound,” you’d run out the door. But for your neck or lower back it makes sense?

      1. And chiropractors frequently don’t stop there, either. I used to work with someone who was put on a dangerous crash diet (the one where you’re supposed to eat 500 calories a day and take that hormone that pregnant women give off, can’t remember the name off the top of my head).

        He lost a lot of weight, of course, but that was only to be expected given that he was barely eating. He was also irritable the whole time, and as soon as he stopped he immediately rebounded back up in weight because he hadn’t actually made any long-term changes to his behavior like exercising or trying to eat a more balanced diet.

        Then he got hooked on taking massive vitamin doses as a disease prevention method, which I’m sure won’t have healthy long-term effects.

    5. That certainly hasn’t been my experience with my doctor, but then it took me a while to find her because I’m very picky about doctors.

      She never fails to remind me that if I ate better and exercised more often I would be able to stop taking pills for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

    6. Was going to comment a while ago when my attention was suddenly needed elsewhere. I’m glad to see many others have made the same points I had planned to make.

      In my experience, most doctors do strive to take a holistic approach. The more information they can gather, the better. Not enough information could lead to misdiagnosis and doctors understand that.

      This notion that “mainstream” doctors preferentially hand out pills/recommend invasive procedures, and ignore remedies stemming from lifestyle changes is the furthest thing from the truth.

      1. Yes, agreed.

        Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve never met a GP that did like to just hand out pills. All of them suggested sensible things like diet change, exercise, wait a while, get an early night and the like where they thought that would be useful and effective.

        1. I think it changes quite a bit once you get into the realm of chronic conditions. I don’t have any myself, but I have struggled with my mother, who does have several chronic issues. It angers me to no end that her doctors all seem to have adopted a stance of continuing to give out pain medicine and then more medicines to counteract the side effects of those medicines, and on and on. They’ve given up any attempts to treat the underlying issues and seem content to simply wait and allow time to pass.

          1. I sympathize, I really do. It is very frustrating and soul-destroying when medicine doesn’t have a solution, a cure or even a good management program for a chronic condition. This is exacerbated when physicians think a patient’s age makes them less eligible for certain treatments or less likely to respond to certain interventions. I truly can understand why someone can turn in despair to anyone who seems to hold out the offer of hope.

            However, the fact that medical science doesn’t have the solution, and in certain cases fails the patient doesn’t mean that there are “alternative” solutions. An acupuncturist or homeopath may be a sympathetic listener and a kind-hearted individual; but it doesn’t mean that anything they do for their trusting patients is any more effective than a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

  5. Why can’t people figure out that it’s called alternative medicine because it is the bogus alternative to real medicine. I’m sorry but when someday I become gravely ill I will be relying on real doctors not priests and witch doctors.

  6. 65% no at this time.

    There are quite a number of schools that have alternate medicine programs. Seems to discredit the schools that carry this junk science.

  7. My couple of friends that went through med school said they basically just smiled and nodded their way through an alt med class. That being said, I think a good ‘alternative medicine and critical thinking’ class might be useful, both to give practitioners some idea both of what all these things are, and why they don’t and couldn’t work. I remember having a long argument with my girlfriend and her mom at dinner because they didn’t believe that homeopathy could possibly be as stupid as it actually is.

  8. Alternative medicine? This is by its very definition a non starter. There should be only one medicine. That is a medicine that can be shown to work. How do we know if a treatment is effective or not? By applying the most rigorous methodology yet devised. The history of medicine shows this clearly. Any practitioner opposing this methodology is a quack. It is really that simple. Many medical doctors don’t clearly understand the scientific method. Medical schools haven’t done a great job in this area. Let us not further confuse the students by teaching “alternative medicine”. Medical schools should (alternatively!) teach the history of medicine to show that any unscientific approach leads generally to miserable failures often in the form of unnecessary deaths.

  9. There is a good argument to be made that medical students should be taught something about alternative medicine simply because they will be treating patients who will be using alternative medicine alongside (or be considering using it instead of) evidence based medicine. Some alternative medicine is harmless, in that it will not interfere with evidence based medicine, but not alternative medicine is like that and doctors need to know when they may be the possibility of harmful conflicts.

  10. There are many encouraging comments such as this one:

    “When so called “alternative” medicine is scientifically shown to actually do anything, it ceases to be alternative and is just called medicine.”

  11. I voted no but I think it is worth noting that we seem to be taking the view that medicine is a scientifically based profession (hence the vote to exclude anti-scientific modalities)
    The reality for physicians is, similar to that of pharmacy shops, one in which they are trying to make a profitable living based on what their customers request. Selling placebos is a very profitable business. I suspect that is where the impetus comes from rather than a belief that such alternative ‘medicine’ actually has a real non-placebo effect.
    We have still a way to go before medicine, as practiced by physicians, becomes science based medicine.

    1. I suspect they also have to deal with patients who aren’t interested in changing their diet or lifestyle and just want a quick fix.

  12. I agree that it’s an important issue, but how do you figure that lives are at stake from an internet poll? I remain unconvinced, until shown otherwise, that any internet poll has ever made the slightest difference about anything.

    Oh, and I voted no.

  13. It should be taught … that it’s an utterly ineffective scam and how to refute it to patients so that they won’t get their little feelings hurt and, thereby, not hurt the doc’s little profit margin.

  14. 79% no a while back. I linked from PZ during a phase of procrastination while someone downstairs apparently tried to drill through the floor of my office, worked through a silent phase and now they have started again 🙁

    Comments on Economist site were broadly reasonable – at least the subset that I read.

  15. And by your use of the term ‘allopathic’ you identify yourself as a fan of homeopathy, if not a homeopath. It’s nonsense. It doesn’t work. If a treatment can be shown to work, let’s use it. If not, let’s not.

  16. I’m not quite clear on what is meant by alternative medicine. I have found a couple of herbals/supplements over the years that have been very effective at troubleshooting some of my issues. Milk thistle for a crabby gallbladder and chewable DGL licorice for heartburn being just two of them. I think doctors should have knowledge of these “alternative” medicines since so many people take them. I also think massage is a very good treatment for muscle issues and mental calming. And there is one homeopathic pill that I have taken that has appeared to have worked several times over the years, although I haven’t bought any in a long time–arnica montana.

    So, I have mixed feelings on this.

      1. Absolutely brilliant! Thanks for the link! Well worth your six minutes, for anyone who’s skimming past this.

    1. I don’t know what you took the Arnica remedy for but I just took the trouble to look up on a homeopathy site what it is claimed to treat and it turns out to be nearly everything! :
      “He [ie Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy] found it helped heal everything from baldness and impotence to incontinence, cramps, bruises, general soreness, forgetfulness, travel sickness, sleeping problems, gout, rheumatism and emotional problems”
      It is notable that quite a few of the things in the list are ailments that tend to get better by themselves or which may be characterised by occasional ’bouts’ of illness with symptom free periods in between. The ‘evidence’ put forward for homeopathy tends to be anecdotal and in many (most? all?) cases claimed cures can be explained purely in terms of the ailment simply getter better naturally.

      1. The first time I came across homeopathic arnica was when my daughter got a horrible black eye from a tumble she took while skiing. The next day her piano teacher came for a lesson and my daughters eye was quite black and blue with lots of swelling. The teacher took out a little vial of pills and asked me if it was OK for my daughter to take them. I asked about them and she explained it all, so I agreed she could try them. My husband and I were both amazed at how quickly that swelling and bruising went down within a couple of hours. The arnica was the only treatment that she used. Now it is perfectly possible that this would have happened anyway, but the rapidity of the healing really surprised us. So I have used it occasionally for severe muscle soreness and/or bruising. It’s also in some muscle rubs and gels. So that is my anecdotal experience with homeopathy. I would agree that it doesn’t make sense and has no real science behind it, but again, if there are millions of people who use these products and also use herbals and supplements, then doctors should at least have a working knowledge of them.

  17. Harper’s magazine recently featured an intriguing article on the benefits of FASTING (April 2012) which kind of blew me away. I’m not sure if this qualifies as alternative medicine or not. Anyhow, apparently all the major medical associations are against it. The author though notes that their objections are based on only 3 or 4 studies, while those who favor it do so based on a much larger body of work.

    The impression I got from reading the article is that the medical establishment is not interested in fasting because it is essentially FREE, except for any professional supervision that it might require.

    I wonder if anyone has read the Harper’s article and can weigh in on it? I would love it if Mr. Coyne could non-blog on this subject sometime.

    1. You could try asking Sense About Science, this genuinely is their area: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/get-scientific-advice.html

      Off the top of my head, a few things raise blips on my skeptical radar – presuming we are not talking about skipping a few meals for a day or two, or cutting out unneeded calories – but actually fasting for an extended period:

      – the 19 day experience of a self-confessed overweight writer for Harper’s Magazine does not trump medical consensus on the subject
      – fasting is potentially dangerous for a number of people with certain pre-existing conditions.
      – when you starve, metabolism slows down, and stress hormones can start to build up
      – it can cause new medical problems and start causing muscle tissue loss after about 10 days
      – it is all too often promoted as a panacea detox that can cure all manner of ills by getting rid of a build-up of toxins. Detox to cure or prevent disease is a trademark claim of quackery.
      – the accusation that Big Pharma won’t touch it because there is no profit in it for them is another of those trademarks of quackery

      1. The last point, the one about Big Pharma not touching it due to lack of profit, is one of the ones that people who support “alternative” medicines seem to really love harping on while completely ignoring that the alternative products they’re advocating for are also made by for-profit companies.

      2. For the most part I agree with the points you make. But I don’t think the author was advocating fasting to cure “all manner of ills”. He noted a few studies which seemed to show promise in treating two specific ills: tumors in rats, and epilepsy in people. And the method of periodic fasting followed by a high fat intake at least is based on a reasonable theory that can be tested. I believe his point was that the consensus was based on too few studies so far.

  18. I’d throw in naturopathy under alternative medicine. I’ve used it before, and contrary to some of the claims, it doesn’t work that well, or has side effects that you are not informed about, at all. While using one of them (I can’t recall which, there were three and it was a number of years ago), I was more aggressive than I otherwise am, and that was problematic. Under normal conditions, I can control my aggression and anger. While taking it, I couldn’t control it.

    I can’t help but think that the people responsible for naturopathic medicine being provided just aren’t telling people everything, something that the regular medicine companies do. So either add more testing to it, and warnings when necessary, or else throw it under the category of alternative medicine.

    As far as homeopathy is concerned, didn’t we test that shit, and make the stuff that worked medicine?

    1. “As far as homeopathy is concerned, didn’t we test that shit, and make the stuff that worked medicine?”


  19. Just voted now and got 0%. Strange poll

    You voted: NoCurrent total votes: 0
    0% voted for Yes and 0% voted for No

  20. Does it really mean only homeopathy though? The honey study was really effed up and many other herbal remedies are worth further research. Not saying they should be taught as gospel; merely saying studies are worth mentioning and conducting.

  21. I hope alternative therapy includes Dalek Relaxation therapy which is becoming more widely accepted as a legit therapy (youtube Dalek relaxation tape)

  22. Not sure what time it is at your place, but the results at 18:30 in Chile read 50% yes, 360% no.

  23. DOn’t just vote — leave comments too. Hee is the comment I just left at The Economist web-site on the poll:

    It seems that putative medical pharmaceuticals and therapies fall into three categories:

    1. Pharmaceuticals and therapies that HAVE been empirically demonstrated to be effective.

    2. Pharmaceuticals and therapies that have NOT been empirically demonstrated to be effective.

    3. Pharmaceuticals and therapies that HAVE been empirically demonstrated to NOT be effective.

    Category 1 medicine constitutes Conventional Medicine; that is the medicine that is (or at least, SHOULD be) presently taught in medical schools.

    Category 3 medicine is “bad” medicine; that is medicine that surely NObody is proposing should be taught in medical schools (although hopefully medical schools do on appropriate occasions teach ABOUT bad medicine, so physicians will know to not purvey bad medicine).

    That leaves only category 2 medicine to constitute “Alternative” (to conventional) Medicine.

    WHY in the WORLD would ANYone (other than charlatans and would-be-the-easy-way “physicians”) think it a good idea for medical schools to teach pharmaceuticals and therapies that have NOT been empirically demonstrated to be effective???

  24. 89% NO, 4/26 7:35 EST. They already teach the placebo affect, why do we need to vary the color of the pill and call it hookey names?

  25. 89%, with 7192 votes recorded. Also, there’s simply a timeout mechanism which restricts one from voting against until its expiry. I know not the limit, but I voted this morning and again just now.

  26. I voted “No” at 10:00 Eastern Daylight Time

    Current total votes: 7579
    11% voted for Yes
    89% voted for No

  27. It is a minor factor but it counts when it comes to why I believe in what is called here woowoo. When I was 16, my finger was pissing blood and someone stopped the bleeding with a subtle move of his hand. I was going to get on the bus and ask him for a plaster. He just said I wouldn’t need one…

  28. I wouldn’t take too much comfort from this. With the folks from this site voting en masse, it is hardly representative. In fact, if you did a poll on this site, you could probably get 100% against. Still, the vast ignorami out there would think it is a great idea.

    1. We’re not saying that the poll numbers represent anything, we’re trying to crash it for being a bad poll.

  29. I don’t know how or why people think ‘alternative’ medicine or ‘alternative’ cures mean anything whatsoever.

    If they worked they wouldn’t be ‘alternative’ but mainstream and touted as such. And lauded as pharmaceutical wonders.

    People have this loopy idea that if you take ‘alternative’ or ‘herbal’ medicine, you are taking the ‘real’ ingredient that can make you better. Even if you take willow bark instead of synthesised aspirin, you take a lot of other not so nice ‘ingredients’ as well.

    This current descent into ancient recipes for health means that modern medicine has to pick up the not-so-ancient pieces and guide them back to health.

    Or the undertakers have to bury them.

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