What the Alternative Medicine Debate Is Really About

To skeptics, it's about claims and evidence. To many others, it's about feeling better.


Last week, after my story on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) went up on our website, I did a bit of keyboard out-loud thinking—can I call it blogmusing?—on the topic. The volume of comments has been unusually heavy, with the expected bright line separating those who castigate me for publishing nonsense from those receptive to CAM. It has been a useful discussion, but I'd like to clarify a couple of points.

I did not state in the story or argue in my blog post that CAM can cure—that it can address the underlying cause of an illness and treat it effectively. I did not write that the explanations put forward by CAM proponents and practitioners for the supposed mechanisms powering their techniques are logical. And I did not say that CAM studies have been well designed and executed or have produced noteworthy findings.

I did report in the story, and repeat on this blog, that CAM often makes people feel better by relieving their symptoms. I suggested that this is not necessarily a bad thing, if a therapy does not cause harm or if the risk is rare, small, and clearly stated.

A physician I know who is prominent in the movement to improve hospital quality E-mailed me after reading my post. He's not a big fan of CAM as a cure. As he wrote: "[E]very now and then, we see somebody who barked up the alternative tree, only to let their real disease go untreated or undiagnosed until it was too late. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's very sad and very memorable."

And then he added this: "For many of the things that CAM has attacked—stress, pain syndromes, stuff like that—western medicine doesn't have much to offer, so if it works for people (whatever the reason), God bless it, and them."