Friday, December 23, 2005


There is a growing mistrust of Western biomedicine that is compelling many to forgo doctors and pharmacies and turn instead to naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, herbs, and other alternative treatments. This trend likely stems in part from bad experiences with insurance companies, hospitals and doctors. Some of it may be the result of frustration with the greed and corruption of big Pharma that has resulted in so many deaths and injuries (e.g., Vioxx, DES, Thalidamide). And certainly a lack of understanding of the scientific process and ignorance regarding the efficacy of many alternative treatments would facilitate the decision to switch from a biomedical approach to an alternative one.

While Western biomedicine has its flaws, most significantly the expense and lack of accessibility for many Americans, for most illnesses and injuries it is effective and efficient. Nevertheless, while the theoretical basis for Western biomedicine is sound, its practice and implementation are easily corrupted by economic and social influences. The potential bird flu pandemic, for example, which could result in tens of millions of deaths world wide, could be mitigated with prudent social policies such as increased funding for vaccine research and antiviral drugs and better monitoring of poultry farms. Similarly, the growing threat of multiple drug resistant bacteria is due in large part to the overuse of antibiotics, particularly by farmers hoping to increase their profits by overcrowding their livestock.

Alternative approaches to medicine, however, are not immune to the corrupting influences of profit. For example, there are now dozens of untested herbal remedies available over the counter at pharmacies and supermarkets. One of these I find particularly amusing, a cold medicine that was designed by a teacher, as if teachers' extensive contact with runny nose kids gives them the expertise to produce effective medications. Most of these over the counter remedies lack the controlled testing and peer reviewed research necessary to justify their claims and that backs most medicines and treatments prescribed in Western biomedicine. And some treatments, herbs in particular, are simply dangerous and unregulated, making it easier for people to injure themselves.

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