Celebrities peddling pseudoscience, fueling distrust in mainstream medicine

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There’s an important divide between the practice of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and the practice of mainstream, or allopathic, medicine. The latter is considered the traditional standard of care, while CAM “refers to a broad set of health care practices that are not part of that country’s own tradition and are not integrated into the dominant health care system.” Definitions of CAM vary from country to country, of course. But as world culture and medical practice becomes more homogenized, there is broad global agreement about what constitutes standard care, and what constitutes alternative care.

Allopathic medicine is thought to be mostly evidence based, while the evidence supporting CAM tends to be of low quality. Therein lies the truest, most important distinction between the two approaches.

During the expansion of globalization in the late 20th century, an increasing amount of non-Western practices entered mainstream practice, but were not officially accepted. Acupuncture, meditation, yoga, and even colonic infusions were part of the CAM wave. Currently, in the second decade of the 21st century, belief in the power of CAM is not uncommon. Despite a dearth of clinical evidence of efficacy for much of it, it is embraced, even at the highest levels of medicine.

One such medical professional touting the benefits of CAM is TV personality Dr Oz. In recent weeks, a group of high-profile doctors called for the removal of Dr Oz from his faculty position at Columbia University. In a public letter addressed to Columbia’s dean of medicine, they stated that Oz had shown “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine”.

Dr Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and vice-chair of the department of surgery at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, legitimizes alternative medical traditions such as acupuncture, homeopathy and reiki – forms of treatment that owe their effectiveness to the placebo effect (Catlin & Taylor-Ford, 2011; Cherkin et al., 2009; Colquhoun & Novella, 2013; Shang et al., 2005). Oz has defended farfetched claims time and time again, most prominently promoting “miracle” weight-loss products. In fact, according to a reporting in the BMJ, only 46% of recommendations on the Dr Oz show have been supported by evidence (Korownyk et al., 2014).

Meanwhile, “Food Babe” Vani Hari, a management consultant turned healthy living activist, is facing accusations of fear-mongering and quackery from the scientific community. She’s successfully led many online petitions to persuade food industry giants to rid their products of “hazardous chemicals” health professionals have confirmed to be benign. As one of Time Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People on the Internet” with a New York Times bestseller in tow, the only thing missing from Vani Hari’s CV is a background in sciences or nutrition.

And let’s not forget Belle Gibson, the wellness blogger and author of “The Whole Pantry” who announced on social media that she beat terminal brain cancer with a healthy diet and lifestyle changes. It was only in a recent interview with Australian Women’s Weekly that Gibson finally admitted that her claims of cancer had been fabricated.

Whenever conventional medicine offers little hope, CAM presents a dizzying array of options. From autism to Alzheimer’s and terminal cancer, there is no illness CAM can’t cure and there certainly isn’t a shortage of anecdotes and videos circulating on the Internet to bolster those claims.

Unfortunately, there are risks associated with certain CAM treatments. Many herbal supplements can interact with medications or have side effects of their own. If patients are unaware, there could be serious consequences. And though some forms of CAM such as acupuncture and Reiki are relatively harmless, is it ethically acceptable to promote blatantly obvious pseudoscientific therapies because they provide a placebo effect? In doing so, healthcare professionals are not only deceiving their patients but also potentially leading them to reject standard medical care.

It’s important to acknowledge the widespread impact that television and social media have on public knowledge and health behaviours. However, we must also be wary of the quality and accuracy of medical information provided. Otherwise, people risk wasting their time and money on false hope.

We mustn’t give up on rigorous standards of medicine. Empirical data collection is the result of thorough lab research and well-designed clinical trials prior to publication in peer-reviewed medical journals. While there remain old practices in mainstream medicine that are not evidence-based, this should not be an excuse for lowering our standards of clinical evidence for new therapies. All medical practices, allopathic or CAM, should be subject to a high bar of evidence before being accepted into the grand selection of therapies and options that we must all rely upon for our health and wellbeing.

References

Catlin & Taylor-Ford. (2011). Investigation of standard care versus sham reiki placebo versus actual reiki therapy to enhance comfort and well-being in a chemotherapy infusion center. Oncology Nursing Forum, 38(3), E212-E220. doi: 10.1188/11.ONF.E212-E220#sthash.cxm1YZ9u.dpuf

Cherkin, D., Sherman, K., Avins, A., Erro, J., Ichikawa, L., Barlow, W., Delaney, K., Hawkes, R., Hamilton, L., Pressman, A., Khalsa, P. & Deyo, R. (2009). A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture and usual care for chronic low back pain. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(9), 858-866. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.65

Colquhoun & Novella. (2013). Acupuncture is a theatrical placebo. Anasthesia & Analgesia, 116(6), 1360-1363. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e31828f2d5e

Vivian Chen. (2009). taiwan2009-147.jpeg [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vivarin/3292578388/in/album-72157613253648090/

Korownyk, C., Kolber, M., McCormack, J., Lam, V., Overbo, K., Cotton, C., Finley, C., Turgeon, R., Garrison, S., Lindblad, A., Banh, H., Campbell-Scherer, D., Vandermeer, B. & Allan, G. (2014). Televised medical talk shows – what they recommend and the evidence to support their recommendations: a prospective observational study. BMJ, 349. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7346

Shang, A., Huwiler-Muntener, K., Nartey, L., Juni, P., Dorig, S., Sterne, J., Pewsner, D. & Egger, M. (2005). Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? Comparitive study of placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy and allopathy. Lancet, 366(9487), 726-732. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67177-2

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Julie Boucher

Julie obtained her MSc in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the IJHS.

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