Readers, be warned: This is not one of my more diplomatic pieces. I’m angry, and while I’m trying to be fair here, I’m not trying to be nice. If you don’t want to read that, please don’t. (It was also written under the influence of an entertaining assortment of prescription drugs; so if I’m more meandering than usual, please forgive me. Hey, what a pretty tree!)
As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been home sick for several days with pneumonia. The experience hasn’t been a picnic: as anyone who’s had pneumonia knows, even a relatively moderate case that you don’t have to be hospitalized for will totally kick your ass. I’ve been exhausted; I’ve been uncomfortable and at times in actual pain; and since all I could do for days was sit on the sofa breathing steam and watching TV, I’ve been bored out of my mind. (It’s only been in the last couple of days that I’ve been alert enough, or able to stop hovering over the steamer for long enough, to do any writing.)
Here’s the thing. As soon as I started suspecting that my bad cold was something more than a bad cold, I hightailed it over to Kaiser. And within two hours, I had a diagnosis, medicines in my hand, and a treatment plan. In case you’re curious, here’s what I’m on:
Cough medicine. Purpose: to quiet my cough, which had been doing this nasty self-perpetuating loop — the cough was making my lungs irritated, which was making me cough even more. (This also reduces my pain and discomfort and lets me rest, since I got the good stuff with codeine.) Also — not to be too gross about it — it loosens the gunk in my lungs, so when I do cough it does some good.
Decongestants. Purpose: at the risk of thoroughly grossing you all out, to stop post-nasal drip from dripping into my lungs and gunking up the works even further. (The gross-out portion of this blog post is now complete. My apologies.)
All of which — how exactly shall I put this? — works. It does what it sets out to do. All of it was carefully, rigorously tested, with placebo controls and double-blinding and peer review and replicability and all that good stuff… and all of it has been shown to work. It’s going to be a little while before I’m back to normal — pneumonia is no joke — but I started writing this three days after I started the treatment, and I’m already significantly and measurably better.
And contrary to one of the more popular misconceptions about conventional medicine, the doctor didn’t just send me home with a bag of drugs. She also sent me home with instructions to breathe steam; drink enormous amounts of fluids (especially tea); stay warm; not talk too much; and rest as much as I possibly could. Plus she asked me about fifty times if I smoked. Contrary to the accusation leveled in a comment in this blog that “anything that isn’t designed by a human in a lab isn’t considered ‘real medicine,'” a large part of my treatment plan had nothing to with anything designed in a lab or cooked up by a pharmaceutical company. And the non-drug part of the treatment didn’t make anybody rich… except perhaps the Celestial Seasonings tea company. (Even the drugs in a bag weren’t making anyone terribly rich; they’re mostly old-school drugs that moved into generics long ago.)
Now, I haven’t been tremendously happy these past few days. I’ve been exhausted, cranky, woozy, uncomfortable, and bored out of my mind. And let me tell you, the combination of codeine and Sudafed is one weird-ass speedball. I don’t recommend it.
But here’s what I haven’t been:
Or even suffering all that much.
The history of pneumonia before antibiotics is not pretty. Until the 20th century, treatment was pretty much non-existent. You either got better on your own, or you died. Mostly, you died. Pneumonia killed a ton of people, and it was known and feared for its special ability to kill young, healthy people in the prime of their life. And death from pneumonia is no fun at all. (I’ll spare you the details, since I promised earlier to stop grossing you out.) There was some treatment beginning to be available in the early 20th century — but antibiotics completely changed the picture.
Pneumonia still kills people today. Mostly the very young, the very old, the immune-suppressed, and people who don’t get medical care in time. But thanks to conventional medicine and Big Pharma, I am rotting on the sofa for a week, feeling sorry for myself and watching all of “Firefly” on DVD… not rotting in a grave. And so are thousands of other people who got pneumonia this week. (Well, they’re probably not all watching “Firefly”…)
Okay. All very good reasons for me to be happy about conventional medicine. So why is this experience making me angry about alternative medicine? Not just annoyed, not just amused, but deeply, seriously, lividly angry?
I’m angry because I think alternative medicine undermines conventional medicine.
I’m angry because so many alt medicine practitioners convince sick people to treat their illnesses, not with treatments that have been rigorously tested and shown to be effective, but with whatever powders and potions and procedures the practitioner’s fancy happened to light upon, backed up at best with carelessly-done testing, and at worst with nothing but an interesting philosophy. With the best result being a placebo effect, and the worst being actual harm being done, either from neglect of the medical condition or from the sometimes harmful treatments themselves.
I’m angry because so many alt medicine practitioners promise “alternatives” that are easier, more pleasant, and more palatable than conventional treatments… along with promises of more complete and dramatic cures. I’m angry that they encourage people to pursue preventions and treatments based not on thorough testing of what does and does not work, but on what they find emotionally and psychologically and culturally appealing. I’m angry that they encourage people to abandon conventional medicine, which is often unpleasant and sometimes only partially effective, by offering appealing promises that they can’t back up.
I’m angry because so many alt medicine practitioners and proponents convince people that conventional medicine only cares about symptoms and acute conditions and ignores prevention and overall health… when the reality is that doctors and nurses and public health officials around the world are desperately trying to get people to exercise, eat better, reduce their stress, and quit smoking.
Along that line, I’m angry because so many alt medicine proponents and practitioners convince people that “doctors don’t know anything, and all they care about is making Big Pharma rich.” (As if alt medicine practitioners were all-knowing, and nobody in the world were getting rich off of it.) I’m angry at the ways that alt medicine encourages the anti-intellectual strain so prevalent in American culture; the all- too- common attitude of, “What does that hi-falutin’ doctor know anyway, with their book larnin’ and their fancy degrees? Us simple folk know more about (X) than Dr. Fancy-Pants, with their years of specialized training and experience.”
And I don’t mean that altie practitioners and proponents encourage people to question doctors; to have a healthy skepticism about them; to treat them as fallible human beings who aren’t God. I encourage people to do that. Hell, most doctors and nurses I know encourage people to do that. I mean that they encourage people, not to question doctors, but to disregard them at their whim.
Now, a lot of people will argue that many alt medicine practitioners don’t do any such thing. They’ll argue that many altie practitioners see alt medicine as a supplement to conventional medicine, not a replacement for it. That’s why it’s often called complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM — because it complements conventional medicine, rather than supplanting it.
Okay. Fair enough. So look at it this way. If I had gone to an alt medicine practitioner with my pneumonia symptoms, one of two things would have happened.
Option A: They would have tried to treat my pneumonia with their dilutions, their energy fields, their sacred herbs, whatever. Seriously. Here are some of the gems that my Google search on “pneumonia” + “alternative medicine” turned up. We have this site, recommending that pneumonia be treated with diet, bowel and dental cleansing, and — believe it or not — exercise. (Exercise being absolutely the last fucking thing in the world you ought to be doing if you have pneumonia — except maybe for smoking.) No mention of antibiotics. We have this site, which mentions antibiotics but says they’re problematic, and suggests as alternatives cayenne pepper, manuka honey, and hydrogen peroxide. And then we have Holisticonline.com, which recommends that pneumonia be treated with chiropractic care, pleurisy root, and the color red.
In which case they would, in my opinion, be guilty of reckless endangerment of human life. If anyone anywhere in the world has died, or even suffered needlessly, because they acted on the advice of an alt medicine practitioner and treated their pneumonia with exercise, cayenne pepper, or the color red, then that is blood and suffering on the hands of alternative medicine.
Don’t believe me? Don’t think that CAM practitioners prescribe CAM treatments for serious, life-threatening illnesses — in the place of conventional medicine? Here’s a nice little story from the BBC about homeopathists in Britain telling people that they didn’t need to take anti-malarial drugs when visiting Africa or other high- malaria- risk parts of the world — they just needed to take the homeopathic remedies. Read it and seethe. And there is no reason to think they did this for malaria only and not for any other life-threatening illnesses. Even a cursory Google search will turn up alt medicine treatments for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, and more. And check out these “what’s the harm?” sites for more stories of people suffering or dying because their serious illnesses got alt medicine instead of conventional medical treatment.
So that’s one option. The reckless endangerment option. But the other option is B: They would have recognized that I had a serious medical condition that they couldn’t treat, hustled me out the door, and sent me scurrying to a conventional doctor. (When I Googled “pneumonia” + “alternative medicine,” this is what a number of the sites I found essentially did.)
In which case, what the hell is the point? If the only thing alt medicine is good for is mild health problems that quickly go away on their own, then why bother? What on earth is the point of a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry if it exists solely to make people feel slightly better when they have sniffles or sore muscles or tummy aches? (If it even does that, in any way other than as a placebo.)
Conventional medicine is far from perfect. Insert a standard “I know conventional medicine is flawed” disclaimer here; I’ve written them before, and I don’t feel up to writing another one now. But it’s the best game in town. It is, pretty much by definition, medicine that has been rigorously tested using the scientific method, with placebo controls and double-blinding and replicability and peer review and all that other difficult, expensive, time-consuming stuff that alt medicine doesn’t bother with.
And the chances are excellent that you — personally — are alive today because of it. Whether it’s the polio you didn’t get because you got vaccinated, the smallpox you didn’t get because it’s been eradicated, the heart attack you didn’t have because your high blood pressure is being treated, the pneumonia you didn’t die of because it got cured… I could go on and on and on. And on. The benefits of conventional medicine are often invisible, an invisibility that’s enhanced by short memories and insufficient history lessons. But the fact is that we easily prevent and treat diseases and conditions that used to routinely kill thousands and millions of people.
Medicine is about the prevention of death and the relief of suffering. And conventional medicine is, by definition, medicine that has been rigorously tested and shown to prevent death and relieve suffering. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is, by definition, medicine that is outside that rigorous testing system. It is medicine that promises to prevent death and relieve suffering, but is unwilling to spend the time and work and money making damn well sure that it can back up that promise. It is medicine that shares every single one of the flaws of conventional medicine, from greed to arrogance to cultural blindness, without offering any real benefit that conventional medicine doesn’t.
And it is medicine that undermines conventional medicine; medicine that draws people away from conventional medicine by making enticing promises that it can’t deliver.
So it is therefore medicine with blood and suffering on its hands.