Alternative Medicine in America Versus Western Medicine

If half of the adults in a country approve of a certain kind of treatment philosophy, would you still call it “alternative”? That’s the way it is in America, a place where 80 million grown-ups every year turn to some kind of alternative treatment – herbs, megavitamins, yoga, acupuncture  or anything else. Like George says in Seinfeld, everyone wants to go “holistic” these days. As wonderful as the claims are for alternative medicine, there isn’t any solid scientific evidence to back them up, at least not enough. Everyone loves to hate big Pharma, but next to the studies that big Pharma organizes for its drugs, studies to do with alternative medicine can seem positively primitive, and unscientific in the way they are designed and conducted. And yet there is hope.

The government, aware that half the country is madly in love with alternative medicine, is hard at work trying to bring to this kind of medicine the scientific standards that mainstream medicine takes for granted. Pretty soon, the federal government hopes that there will be standards that separate the wheat from the chaff, the science from the snake oil. To someone coming from mainstream medical research, the standards in research used to study alternative medicine methods like yoga can seem laughable. For instance, there was a Harvard study done six years ago on more than 100 existing research papers on yoga all of which claimed that yoga could treat everything from heart disease to cancer and psychiatric problems. When they looked closely at these papers they realized that less than half of them used the universal research standard of randomized controlled trials. In regular research, this standard is a mainstay – a way that makes certain (by using chance and randomness to assign a researcher to a patient)that no scientist involved in a study is able to bring his personal hopes and biases into play.

The government body, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine hopes to put an end to all this, armed with a budget of more than $100 million. They plan to take up all the alternative medicine research themselves, to try to bring some more rigor in these circles. One of the popular claims made for alternative medicine these days is the one where they say that ginkgo biloba can arrest Alzheimer’s. The National Center is now taking up a large-scale study of 3000 patients to determine if this is correct. The Center is also involved in a large-scale study to see if acupuncture can help with arthritis. That study is done now, and they have found that acupuncture does indeed help with osteoarthritis of the knee.

As for the ginkgo study, they feel that the active ingredient in the plant isn’t always found in enough concentration in direct extracts. They want to see if artificially boosting its active ingredients can help. There has never been this kind of rigor in alternative medicine, and it is wonderful to see that the mainstream is embracing and recognizing the merits there are in alternative medicine. These studies can be very expensive, and the $100 million won’t go very far. If only they could find the funding for this now, a panacea would not be far away.