There’s a certain professor in England who is conducting a major campaign (with the help of a few friends) against the whole of complementary and alternative medicine in general and homeopathy in particular. His name is Edzard Ernst and it seems the thrust of his campaign is to tell us that he is an expert so we should trust what he has to say and distrust anyone who disagrees with him.
I could give you many examples of the kinds of statements he makes which I disagree with but let me just focus on one he recently made in “Health Service Journal” because I think this is really the key issue of the debate.
People must not confuse the perceived benefits of so-called alternative medicine with the medical facts.
……..consumers trying alternative therapies tend to be well educated and often perceive these treatments to be effective. Perception must, however, not be equated with fact.
What are “perceived benefits”? Well, they are when a patient says they feel better. And what’s a “medical fact”? That’s a bit harder to pin down. Generally a “fact” refers to something objective. In medicine, that tends to mean something which can be measured, something physical. That’s not the only way the term “medical fact” is used however. It’s also used when someone is actually referring to a probability. Experiments in medicine (known as clinical trials) produce results which are frequently presented as “facts”. However, they are actually statistical probabilities. It’s very odd to hear people divide treatments into two categories – proven and unproven (even more odd to describe treatments as either proven or disproven). The world just doesn’t fit into two simple boxes so easily!
When a patient comes to see me complaining of pain, or fatigue, or nausea, or dizziness, or breathlessness, or any of a whole range of symptoms, they are describing their personal, subjective experience. I cannot, no matter how hard I try, know another person’s pain. So, after receiving treatment, when the patient returns to say how he or she is now, then, when they say they have less pain, they have less pain. When they say they are less fatigued, they have less fatigue. When they say they have less nausea, they have less nausea. There is no way I can tell another person I know better than they do, what they are experiencing.
Some of these patients also have objective signs of disease (but not all of them do). Those who have objective signs of disease demonstrate a non-linear relationship between those signs and their symptoms. There is NO direct one-to-one, linear relationship between, say, pain, and the size of a lesion. The amount of pain may vary with the size of the lesion, but it may not. To tell a patient that you know better than they do whether or not they are improving because only you can measurement the difference is absurd. It’s even worse with the many, many patients whose symptoms are NOT related to lesions at all (those whose tests return only “normal” readings). How do you tell them that they are not really getting better when they say that they are? Which “medical facts” are you relying on?
Having dismissed patients’ “perceptions” of improvement, Ernst and others then go on to say that even if the patient really [according to the expert] is getting better, then it is most likely to either have happened anyway (without treatment), or be due to placebo. Actually, that is a problem for every single instance of treatment. It is impossible to distinguish, in an individual, whether or not an improvement would have happened anyway (self-healing), or is due to placebo (self-healing), or is due to specific effects of the treatment (which in the case of most holistic treatments is claimed to be due to stimulation of self-healing).
I disagree with Professor Ernst. I think that for every single patient I treat, their inner, personal, unique, individual, subjective experience should never be dismissed.
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