In the essay, Freedman explores why alternative medicine is creeping into the mainstream– and why medical doctors are trying to learn from it -- despite the fact that carefully controlled studies have shown it works no better than a placebo.
Could it be, as many at the Mayo Clinic suggest to Freedman in the piece, that “alternative medicine is a legitimate response to mainstream medicine’s real shortcomings?”
Both the original story and the orderly debate that is now going on – the Atlantic asked seven leaders in the field to respond to Freedman’s reporting -- offer a refreshing look at both sides of the issue.
In fact, the two forms of healing have more in common than you think. Both traditional and alternative-minded doctors liberally use the placebo effect. Both forms of medicine use treatments that have no scientific evidence. (“One fifth of the prescriptions written by physicians in the U.S. are for off-label applications that have not been supported by randomized trials,” Freedman writes.) And both energy healers and cardiovascular surgeons – and many other kinds of healers -- give patients treatments they don’t need.
In today’s post, Dr. Andrew Weil argues that the lines between the two worlds have become so blurred that “a debate on the merits of conventional, alternative or integrative medicine is fruitless unless the starting point is some agreement on which therapies fit into each of these categories.”
In his rebuttal to the main piece, titled, "A triumph of hype over reality," Dr. Steven Salzberg, a vocal critic of alternative medicine and who calls alternative medicine “cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery,” clarifies that he is not opposed to treatments that haven’t gone through clinical trials. Instead, he believes that “when studies show a treatment doesn’t work, it’s time to move on.”
And he points out that alternative medicine isn’t new – it “consists almost entirely of old, long-disproven methods that have been re-packaged as “alternative or “integrative” medicine, and whose proponents simply won’t accept the evidence.”
Freedman, however, questions the evidence. Responding to Salzberg, he reiterates a main point in his piece. “Alternative medicine probably can’t be dismissed even when randomized trials, seem to show that it doesn’t work better than placebo,” he wrote.
“That’s not only because the placebo effect itself can be so powerful and helpful in alternative medicine (and of course, it plays a large, if less-powerful role in mainstream medicine as well.) It’s also because randomized clinical trials can’t fairly asses the components of alternative medicine that seem to do the real good: strengthening practitioner-patient bonding, promoting healthier habits and addressing stress, anxiety and other thoughts feelings and attitudes that can seriously compromise health, according to a wealth of research.“