Alternative MedicineScienceSkepticism

What’s the Harm of “CAM”?

On a day-to-day basis, I notice a lot of advertisements for various “medical” and “health” products. Organic produce is commonly sold in grocery stores. Chiropractic clinics and herbal suppliments are often advertised on television. I’ve even seen and heard ads for psychic healings and religious exorcisms. Homeopathy is peddled as a cure-all. Power-bands and other hologram bracelets adorn the wrists of children and adults alike. All of these products and services fall under the heading of “CAM”, or complementary and alternative medicine.

I knew that these sort of treatments were popular. I had no idea exactly how popular. According to WebMD and a study by the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics published in 2009, Americans spend 11% of their health care budget on alternative medicine. This totals to around $34 billion. It’s a lot of money going toward… what, exactly?

This is how Mayo Clinic defines it.

Complementary medicine is thought of as treatments used in addition to the conventional therapies your doctor may prescribe, such as using tai chi or massage in addition to prescription medicine for anxiety.
Alternative medicine is generally thought of as being used instead of conventional methods. For example, this might mean seeing a homeopath or naturopath instead of your regular doctor.

Types of alternative medicine include acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal suppliments, and energy therapy, among others. The reason they are alternative forms of medicine is because there have been no conclusive studies to show they work. From Mayo Clinic again:

Conventional doctors have good reason to be skeptical when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine. Some complementary and alternative medicine practitioners make exaggerated claims about curing diseases, and some ask you to forgo treatment from your conventional doctor to use their unproven therapies. Some forms of complementary and alternative medicine can even hurt you.

Conventional medicine relies on methods proved to be safe and effective with carefully designed trials and research. But many complementary and alternative treatments lack solid research on which to base sound decisions. The dangers and possible benefits of many complementary and alternative treatments remain unproved.

Medicine is one of the scientific fields most abused by advertising scams and false claims. Personally, I find it sickening. People who buy medicines and health products want to get better from some aliment or disease. They deserve treatment that’s scientifically proven to be both effective and safe. At best, some CAM treatments have a positive effect equivalent to that of a placebo. Proponents think the treatment works, because of the psychological trick of the placebo effect. In reality, though, it has no effect at all. At worst, they can be deadly. Individuals who opt for alternative medicine instead of actual medicine are denying themselves effective treatment to an illness, and can die from entirely treatable and curable diseases. Scams like Glymetrol prey on the vulnerable and uncertain, preventing them from getting real help and taking an obscene amount of money, to add insult to injury.

As Tim Minchin put it in his wonderful beat poem “Storm”:

By definition…alternative medicine…has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. You know what they call “alternative medicine”  that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

So be careful when considering alternatives to conventional medicine. Do your research, and figure out the scientific evidence for any health treatment before taking it. It could just save your life.

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.

1 Comment

  1. March 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm —

    And for more examples of answers to the question, “What’s the harm?” be sure to check out my website.

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