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'alternative' medicine - numbers using it =/= evidence it works

Recently some friends & I were discussing the use of what might be called 'Supplementary, Complementary, & Alternative Medicine' - a group of 'therapies' that includes (but is not limited to) things like homeopathy, reiki, acupuncture, ear candling, and cranio-sacral therapy, and for which there is little or no evidence of efficacy.

One of the reasons given by those supporting their use is a form of the 'argument from popularity' logical fallacy: 'but look at how many people use them. They can't all be wrong!' That viewpoint is exemplified here, in the claim that a large number of doctors are now recommending alternative therapies to their patients, or providing these therapies themselves. The list offered at one such practice includes

psychologists, naturopaths, nutritionists, cranio osteopaths, massage therapists, hypnotherapists, yoga practitioners, an acupuncturist and a breast thermography technician.

Now, massage, yoga (exercise), and psychology are hardly 'alternative', although including them in the list then allows one to inflate the number of people supposedly seeking out alternative health modalities. Most of the rest have been addressed far better than I could by Orac (see here, for example, and here) and the authors of the Science-Based Medicine site

But let's not get distracted. As my friend Renee said: the claim is that lots of people use these modalities, therefore they must be good; a claim supposedly supported by "the impressive statistics showing people are now willing en mass [sic] to spend their dollars on integrated health care". What we should be asking to see are the statistics showing the efficacy of such care, before we start spending any more of our scarce health dollars on it.

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2 Comments

Anecdotal:

New Zealand hospital Emergency Departments seem to see a reasonable number of people for whom SCAM treatment has (not surprisingly) failed to cure them.

Unfortunately, SCAM costs a lot and after paying for useless SCAM "therapy" they can no longer afford to see their GP to get medicine that works.

Just one of the reasons why there is an overload and increasing waiting time at Emergency Departments in NZ.

And alas! ACC pays for a number of these therapies, & at least one MoH advisor appears to be highly supportive of their use. (Homeopathy also seems to have some high-level support, given the venue for this year's conference: http://www.homeopathy.co.nz/)

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