20 Apr 2017

Alternative medicine: quackery or therapy?

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:16 pm on 20 April 2017

There is a perception that alternative or complementary medicines are safe. Is this the case? 

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, a science researcher with the Morgan foundation is interested in applying science and evidence to public policy.

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Photo: pexels

Alternative medicine and complementary medicines encompass a whole range of therapeutic approaches, she says. Complementary medicine is intended to accompany orthodox medical practices and alternative medicine is where it replaces conventional medicine.

“Alternative medicine can include Chinese medicine or Māori models of health and wellbeing. Others have grown up within the western culture - for example homeopathy.”

Dr Berentson-Shaw says she’s not against these approaches but believes they should be looked at through a “scientific lens.”

We ask, do they work? And there are some that meet that scientific standard so we can’t tar all alternative and complementary medicines with the same brush - the problem is there is a veritable tsunami of health claims that don’t stack up at all.”

Some therapies have low level evidence she says, for example acupuncture, others none at all.

She has particular concerns about thermography as a breast cancer detection tool.

“It’s based on heat seeking for early detection of breast cancer and it looks like very conventional medicine and there is unfortunately no evidence for that being able to detect breast cancer better than mammography.

“One of the problems with that is it gives people reassurance and they might side line other treatments - normal mammograms.”

People will often buy a product and say it’s harmless, she says, but that may not be the case.

“Do you know it’s harmless? There was a homeopathic teething gel for infants and it was belladonna based, which is deadly nightshade, it had levels of belladonna that gave some babies seizures.”

She says the idea that there can’t be any harm when a product hasn’t been tested, or there’s no science is a problem.

Interactions are another concern.

“St John’s Wort, which we know is quite effective for mild to moderate depression, can interfere with anti-retroviral drugs and stop them from working.” 

She says before buying or using a product ask these questions:

What are the risks of the product?

How do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Are there simpler and safer options?

Has it had a randomised controlled trail showing it’s effective over doing nothing?

She says the Natural Health Products Bill, currently in parliament, will help as some natural health products will need to be registered and their claims for effectiveness made available.

Some turn to alternative medicines because a conventional medicine has not worked or has had side effects, she says.

“The idea that modern medicines should provide us with solutions without harm is a little bit erroneous. Chemotherapy can be a distressing experience, but we know it can be quite effective.  This idea that alternative or complementary medicine won’t so harm is problematic, there are people who have used alternative medicines and undergone great harm.”

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