Just Say No to Snake Oil

Are you looking forward to watching the presidential debate tonight?  I sure am.  Not so much from a competitive Obama vs. McCain standpoint, but more because I'm just totally into politics right now and want to hear what they have to say.  I'm hoping for some good television.

Anyhow, that's not what I wanted to talk about.  Today I did my volunteer dog walking (which I do on Monday and Friday mornings) and I got to talking with the lady I'm helping out.  I knew she was recovering from breast cancer surgery, and occasionally she's spoken about her treatment, but today we talked about it in a little more detail.  I'm worried for her, because it seems like she might be barking up some of the wrong trees.

Let me stop here and say I do not know the specifics of her treatment.  She has mentioned that she is not having chemotherapy, which is certainly a valid personal choice, however the way in which she presented this information made me think that she has a distrust of evidence-based medicine–at least as it pertains to her cancer treatment.  Furthermore, she's mentioned supplements (but complains of their expense whilst extolling their virtues, as if this validates their efficacy), special water, and a special diet.

Today, our conversation went something like this:

Lady:  Can you give the dogs some water?

Me:  Sure.  [I got the bowl and went to the sink and started filling it up].

Lady:  Oh, don't give them sink water!  Give them the water from this bottle [she points to the large water cooler with a bottle].  I never give them tap water.

Me:  [As I fill the bowl].  My dogs just get regular old tap water.

Lady:  You shouldn't do that, it has too many chemicals.  There is a big difference between tap water and this water.  You don't drink tap water, do you?

Me:  Yeah, sometimes, and sometimes bottled water.

Lady:  Bottled water is no different than tap water.  You need to drink this water.

From here she explains that her friend has a machine which uses electrolysis to take the acidity out of the water and make it alkaline, and that cancer can't grow in an alkaline environment.  There are three types–that which is for drinking, that which is for cleansing the skin, and that which is for cleaning in general.  The machine is very expensive, but apparently they have a payment plan.  She is lucky, she says, because her friend brings her the water for free.

She assures me it makes a "big difference."

I don't know what that means.

What I do know is that there is no scientific basis to her belief that this alkaline water is helping her or that acidity in the body causes disease–at least not in the way she thinks it is.  The only benefit it might be providing (besides simple hydration) is that she believes it works, and thus she feels better mentally about her situation.  Kind of a mind over matter thing, which is certainly important, but won't prevent the cancer from coming back or spreading.

In general, I am very skeptical of alternative medicine.  This isn't because I believe that evidence-based medicine has all the answers, because it doesn't.  At best, however, alternative medicine puts a premium on faith that something will work with little or no evidence to support its claims.  At worst, it is a group of hucksters looking to make big bucks on the naivety of the population. 

Much of the argument in favor of alternative medicine seems to be that evidence-based medicine has a hidden agenda (that invariably involves making money for the drug industry) and that it depends on keeping people sick rather than preventing illness.  To wit:

My advice is to stay away from "quack watch" and other self-proclaimed "quack busters." My experience is that they always have a hidden agenda, notably protecting the financial interests of the drug industry by casting aspersions on their competition – the alternative health care industry. If they would stick with the truth that would be fine. But they are constantly misrepresenting the facts and perpetuating outright lies in order to further their hidden agenda. It is not the place to find the truth.

Hmmm.  I invite you to take a look around the website I got that quote from and make a decision about its credibility yourself. 

The problem with this critique of those who speak out against quackery or are proponents of evidence-based medicine is that it is a case of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.  What is alternative medicine if not an opportunity to sell, sell, sell?  For even the well-meaning practitioners, alternative medicine is a lucrative business opportunity which is not hampered by the shackles of scientific evidence or pesky regulators.

Look, I'm not saying that people should automatically shun alternative therapies or that there definitely isn't a place for them in medicine.  That is a personal decision that one needs to make with regard to one's own health.  But educate yourself, apply your critical thinking skills, and make an informed decision before spending your money.

Holly West

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