Dec 07 2017

Alternative Medicine Kills

If the best available evidence is used to determine which treatment strategy for a serious illness has the best survival, than any “alternative” to this evidence-based treatment should, by definition, have a lower survival.

That is a simple and straightforward fact. You have to believe in some twisted conspiracy theory to avoid the obvious conclusion.

But good scientists like to dot all their “i”s and cross all their “t”s. In August Yale researchers published a study in which they looked carefully at the outcomes of cancer patients treated with conventional treatments vs those who opted for so-called alternative treatments. They only considered patient who used alternative treatments instead of proven treatments.

What they found was not surprising, but should be sobering:

Following 2:1 matching (CCT = 560 patients and AM = 280 patients) on Cox proportional hazards regression, AM use was independently associated with greater risk of death compared with CCT overall (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.50, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.88 to 3.27) and in subgroups with breast (HR = 5.68, 95% CI = 3.22 to 10.04), lung (HR = 2.17, 95% CI = 1.42 to 3.32), and colorectal cancer (HR = 4.57, 95% CI = 1.66 to 12.61).

To translate – all the subjects in the study who used alternative medicine to treat their cancer had a 2.5 times higher death rate over a five year follow up. Those subjects with breast cancer had 5.68 times higher death rate, and colorectal cancer 4.57 times.

As was suspected, breast cancer had the most stark outcome. If you have breast cancer and you use the best standard treatment you are likely to survive. If you use alternative medicine you are likely to die.

As the authors point out, this was an observational study. They controlled for as many variables as they could, and the most plausible interpretation is that avoiding standard cancer treatment in favor of useless alternative treatments is what caused the higher risk of death. But other factors cannot be ruled out.

Why, then, would any rational person choose alternative medicine to treat their cancer? Here I think the answer is simple – because they have been lied to by quacks and charlatans. Patients facing a serious, possibly terminal, cancer diagnosis are vulnerable. They are understandably frightened and concerned. There are no great options before them – they have to face the consequences of the cancer, and/or they have to face invasive treatments with some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and radiation.

Then along comes a friendly practitioner who says there is a third option – gentle “alternative ” treatments that will cure the cancer without all the horrible side effects. It is an escape hatch from a terrible situation. Further, alternative gurus have their marketing down. They know which buttons to push, and how to sell their narrative. They have answers to the reasonable questions anyone should ask. If the alternative treatments are so safe and effective, why isn’t everyone using it? Well, because doctors are in the pocket of Big Pharma who just want to protect their drug profits. They are closed-minded to real healing and only know drugs and surgery.

They have a narrative that has evolved and been tweaked over centuries to lure in desperate patients with false promises. They use testimonials which any marketer can tell you is very effective, but utterly worthless as real evidence. Dead patients tell no tales. Some will pretend to be scientific, without ever doing any real science – it’s all just part of the marketing.

At this point you might be wondering why we allow people to treat cancer with unproven therapies. Well, they have a strategy for that to – they call it “health care freedom.” They have managed to convince enough people that patients have a right to whatever treatment they want, but really what the gurus are interested in is their right to sell whatever treatment they want with whatever claims they want. They want the right to practice fraudulent medicine without any standard of care. It is the ultimate con.

Any cancer doctor can tell you stories of patients with curable cancers who instead opted for alternative treatments and as a result dies a horrible unnecessary death. It is good to now have some numbers to put on this phenomenon. This study, however, did not capture the negative effect of delaying treatment – it only counted people who never received conventional treatment. So the harm of false hope from fake cancer treatments is greater than even what this study revealed. And of course there are many more diseases out there than just cancer.

Our goal should be to have reasonable standards of care so that patients are offered the best treatments available, with full transparency and autonomy. That means we use rigorous evidence to ask all the important questions that will inform patient choices. Further, it is blatantly unethical, and should be illegal, to lie to patients in order to give them false hope in order to lure them away from proven therapies in favor of magic water and other fraudulent treatments.

In practice, however, it isn’t, because all you have to do is label whatever nonsense you are selling as “alternative” and suddenly it’s all good. Academia and the medical profession are not working hard enough to correct this situation. Our politicians have no clue what is going on, and there simply isn’t the political will to do anything. Studies like this are a good start to help turn around public opinion, but we are working against a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry with effective lobbying and marketing.

They have managed to flip the script, and sell a narrative in which they are the heroes, when in fact they are the villains. They are literally killing their patients for profit.

8 responses so far

8 thoughts on “Alternative Medicine Kills”

  1. MosBen says:

    I have no background in medicine, but those numbers were actually lower than I would have expected. If breast cancer is very treatable with conventional treatments, meaning that there would be a high survivability, then even at almost 6x higher risk of death it seems like there were a significant number of people in the alternative medicine camp that survived. Are they just living with the cancer, or does some cancer just go away on its own? Or, very likely, am I doing the math wrong in my head?

  2. This was 5 year survival, so they may have still eventually died. The upper limit of the 95% confidence interval for breast cancer was 10 times. The average 5 year survival with breast cancer is 90%, so a 10% death rate at 5 years. This would essentially mean everyone in the alt med group for breast cancer died.

  3. Willy says:

    A neighbor was diagnosed with a cancer that he was told had a probability of being “cured”. He opted for an herbal quack in Mexico. He’s dead.

  4. MosBen says:

    Thanks for the clarification!

  5. MosBen says:

    One more thing: I did see someone in the comments to the Facebook post of this article say that there wasn’t a control for people who turned to alternative medicine because their prognosis with conventional treatment was so bad, with the implication being that the pool of people seeking alternative treatments was substantially sicker than the pool of people seeking conventional treatments. I looked at the study and found this, “Notably, patients in the AM group were more likely to be younger, to be female, to have a lower Charlson-Deyo Comorbidity Score (CDCS), and to have higher cancer stage, income, and education. In multivariable analysis, when controlling for clinical and demographic factors…” On the one hand it seems like the AM group did have more advanced cancer than the CCT group, but it also sounds like they did control for that in the statistical analysis. So, can I impose for another clarification and/or response to whether that person on Facebook was making a good point or not? Thanks!

  6. tb29607 says:

    MosBen,
    People with stage 4 cancer at diagnosis have the worst prognosis (22% survival if breast cancer) but were excluded from the study.

    Prior to 2:1 matching, the AM group did have higher stage but this was compared to all patients and these differences went away after matching.

    Since everyone received something, there was no control group.

    So the Facebook post is confused about control groups and about matching of patient characteristics. The post has a very superficial point about the 280 people in the AM group, compared to the 1,681,907 people in the CCT group (from whom the patients for comparison were selected). However, after selecting matches from the CCT group with comparable characteristics to those in the AM group, any differences went away (except for survival of course).

  7. MosBen says:

    Awesome. Thanks for the clarification. I had an instinct that the Facebook person was missing something, but their post seemed superficially plausible and I don’t have the expertise in reading studies like this to figure it out. Thanks!

  8. DCTyler says:

    The alternative practitioners I have encountered (not as a patient), seem to believe in what they are selling. They are also usually strongly anti-conventional medicine. They are engaged in the same sort of delusional thinking usually encountered in religions. Unfortunately it makes them all the more convincing.

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