Medical Quackery, Complement or Criticism?

I was at a dinner party listening to conversations brewing around the table. Fun to hear what people will talk about after a nice dinner and wine. A seedling of a story sprouted into a deeper conversation concerning alternative medicine. Sam had just returned from Thailand and spoke about an experience at a massage center. We teased him that massage parlors in Southeast Asia don’t really give massages but “massage alternatives.” He smiled, understanding what we meant, and politely restated his interpretation of massage therapy changed his western perception of alternative medicine.

Sam had been exploring Buddhist Temples in the traditional northern city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is 12 hours by train and a world apart from the more corporeal Bangkok. People from all over the world go to Chiang Mai to study massage therapy and a friend who studied there insisted he seek out a Mr. Kai for a massage saying, “Mr. Kai would change your life.”

After winding through stone alleyways and lanes he located the massage center. He was at once surprised to realize that all the massage therapists were blind.  In the open-air communal massage room he announced himself adding he was looking for Mr. Kai because a friend insisted he get a massage from him.

An old man with wispy white hair turned and said he was Mr. Kai. He had all the peace and calmness of a Buddhist master, martial arts master, or Eastern studies scholar – that’s when Sam noticed Mr. Kai was working with a middle-aged western woman. She turned to meet Sam’s gaze and Sam related that her eyes were soulful. Her eyes harbored 40 years of pain and suffering behind a glimmer of growing hope as Sam looked on. Tears started in her eyes and her body trembled. She was having a great emotional release at the hands of Mr. Kai. Sam was wonderstruck.

This woman was overcome with peace by the time the massage was over. This was no typical massage. This was a massage alternative. Mr. Kai was a healer.

Mr. Kai explained her body was re-living pain from the mind and spirit that was entangled in suffering from emotions and past experience. He was a conduit between the pain of the body and the mind-spirit. He worked with people to get them to acknowledge their pain, their responsibility in it, see need for maintenance of their pain body, and facilitated a release. Physical disease starts in the mind as energy and later manifests in the body, he said. Mr. Kai was helping restore, maintain, and promote a sense of good health and wellness.

Sam was intrigued. As a westerner he always thought of his body, mind and spirit as separate entities. To mainstream US medicine Sam was separated into organ systems and treated in parts. He thought wryly of Frankenstein’s monster where separate parts do not make a whole.

At this point in the dinner conversation the more rational and logical voices began to question the credibility of such claims. How do you make the jump from massage to healer? At the worst, this man must certainly be milking these sad saps for all their worth, or at best these are anecdotal tales without rigorous science to back up such claims.

I chirped in with a historical perspective on medicine. The 1800s medicine system was an eclectic pursuit of various healing methods. There were traditional MDs, spiritual MDs, homeopathic MDs and osteopathic physicians. Today we only have traditional MDs and osteopaths.

Former Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop said, “During the 19th century, American medicine was an eclectic pursuit where a number of competing ideas and approaches thrived. Doctors were able to draw on elements from different traditions in attempting to make people well. Perhaps there is more to this older model of American medicine than we in the 20th century had been willing to example.” The most famous of all surgeon generals was noting that different people heal in various ways and one system cannot address all needs. This gave the more philosophical dinner guests something to chew on. But for the more doubting, I acknowledged the incredible advances of scientific medicine while sharing its failures to highlight my point.

The extent of alternative medicine utilization confounds proponents of western scientific medicine. In 2010, people made 202 million visits, laid out over $14 billion, and regular users were above 20 million for Oriental Medicine Doctors, Acupuncturists, Chiropractors, Naturopaths, and Massage Therapists. In some cases, the cost of good medicine is also problematic. The cost of healthcare will reach $10,000 per person for the first time this year and each year is consuming more and more of the GDP. The current medical system is cannibalizing our economy.

I went on to say that a lack of trust of the mainstream medical establishment is driving away both patients and doctors alike. We are in a bureaucratic and information healthcare crisis. Doctors want to heal but the quality of research is suspect at times and the paperwork to see a patient is too cumbersome.

John Ioannidis MD, the C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention at Stanford University, Professor of Medicine, Professor of Health Research and Policy, Professor (by courtesy) of Biomedical Data Science at the School of Medicine; Professor of Statistics (by courtesy) at the School of Humanities and Sciences; co-Director, Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford; Director of the PhD program in Epidemiology and Clinical Research and Harvard med school graduate, notes that greater than 75% of clinical research is paid for by private companies with specific interests. “We think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously. At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a strong claim, or to select what is going to be concluded.” Dr. Ioannidis is widely published. JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine accept his finding on the bias in medical research. This turns the scientific method on its head a bit.

I went on to say there are three reasons people test the waters of alternative medicine. First, someone may have been raised up in an environment where alternative medicine is already part of the repertoire for health and wellness. Second, others feel helpless after exhausting the options that modern medicine has to offer, or unsatisfied with medicating symptoms away without addressing the underlying problem. The third type to venture into alternative medicine is the one with a philosophical approach towards healing, who recognizes MD medicine is practiced differently even in advanced western countries of which the US  does rank as well in term of preventing diseases.

This last point is the reason I started to investigate alternative medicine. I listened to the parents in my practice request non-traditional treatments and researched their request. This led me to examine various respected and diverse medical systems around the world. My conclusion is medicine is a combination of science and culture.

Mainstream medicine can alleviate symptoms and make someone symptom free but this is a long way off from feeling healthy. Additionally, I believe people are looking for more natural and holistic approaches to feeling well by addressing the mind, body and spirit through personalizing factors of everyday living.

I concluded with the question, “How can one system address everyone’s needs?” We all see the world differently. Look at Lynn Payer’s book, Culture and Medicine. She outlines how Great Britain, Germany, France and the US use the same scientific literature to treat common adult illnesses but interpret the literature through a culture prism. Each country has its own take on medicine and each would be considered malpractice in the other countries. Who are we to say alternative medicine does not work? Maybe the private interests that guide 75% of the mainstream literature are not asking the right questions when they pay for the results of their studies.

The dinner conversation was lively and enjoyable. Everyone partook and walked away with a feeling of being heard and with compelling reasons to take ownership of their participation in the Road to Wellville.

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