Folmsbee: We shouldn’t call it alternative medicine


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

About one-third of Americans use some form of alternative medicine, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One important finding was that the use of alternative medicine has remained largely steady over the past decade, mostly in the form of herbal and non-vitamin supplements. Although popular, these supplements often contain contaminants, fillers and highly variable amounts of active ingredients, making them both largely useless and potentially dangerous. I could continue to run down the specific findings of this study, but there is something more striking, and enlightening, about this report. There is a rare glimmer of hope that government agencies may be slowly distancing themselves from these alternative therapies, because this report finally stopped calling it “medicine.” And by doing so, it takes a big step toward draining so-called alternative medicine of its false legitimacy.

This trend away from calling it alternative “medicine” has been long in the making. In 2004, this report referred to alternative medicine as “Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” where it was defined as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.” But in 2008, the updated report changed its definition, this time calling it “a heterogeneous spectrum of ancient to new-age approaches that purport to prevent or treat disease.” Interestingly, at this time, alternative medicine was no longer considered a health care system, but rather only something that “purported” to treat disease. Even more telling, the 2008 report also added the important caveat, “by definition, (complementary and alternative medicine) practices are not part of conventional medicine because there is insufficient proof that they are safe and effective.” The 2015 report refers to alternative medicine as “complementary health approaches,” defined as “an array of modalities and products with a history of use or origins outside of conventional Western medicine.” It is no longer a healthcare system, nor is it medicine, nor is it supported by evidence. It simply is an “approach.”

Even on an institutional level, alternative medicine has had evolving definitions. I’ve written before about how the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has recently been renamed the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. By not reaching any kind of consensus in its definition, the true nature of alternative medicine has been revealed: it is not really medicine at all. Real, science-based medicine does not play so fast and loose in its definitions of what it is.

Ultimately, what we call “medicine” matters. Medicine has a language drenched in both life and death, as well as hope and suffering, and with that comes power. Every medical word conveys not just meaning, but reflects an established value only achieved by decades of rigorous scientific and clinical research. Just as we value the trained physician as worthy of the prefix “Dr.,” what we call the practice of medicine inherently lends credibility to it.

So, which is correct? Should this kind of medical approach be called “alternative,” “integrative,” or “complementary?” The best term for these non-science based health approaches is one frequently employed by Science-Based Medicine, an organization that advocates for an evidence-based approach to healthcare. They often refer to it as “So-Called Alternative Medicine,” or SCAM for short. Albeit a snarky pejorative, it serves an important dual purpose. For one, it emphasizes the fact that SCAM therapies are not true alternatives to mainstream, science-based medical care. Many of these require a magical or invented worldview outside of the realm of science. For example, homeopathy is based on the strange idea that diluted, disease-mimicking agents can treat illness, and acupuncture is based on the mystical idea of qi, an energy-based life-force flowing in the body. The other benefit of referring to these as SCAM is that it helps rob it of its legitimacy, informing patients to its dubious nature.

So what does this mean for NU’s own institution for so-called alternative medicine treatment, the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine? Of course, I do not expect it will be renamed the Osher Center for SCAM any time soon. But if NU medicine truly values a strong emphasis in a science-based clinical practice, as well as the implicit value the NU brand embodies, it would be a stark improvement. Naturally, I do not wish to denigrate any of the individuals who work at the Osher Center, nor do I wish to belittle any of its patients. But any treatments without any basis in reality, and not supported by the same quality of evidence and science by which we hold the rest of our medical therapies, should not be embraced by any institution that claims to practice “medicine.”

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].