Sep 21 2011

Some Encouraging Backlash Against Nonsense

One of the themes of SBM is that modern health care should be based upon solid scientific ground. Interventions should be based on a risk vs benefit analysis using the best available scientific evidence (clinical and basic science).

As an extension of this, the standard of care needs to be a science-based standard. Science is (or at least should be) objective and transparent, and without such standards there is no way to have meaningful quality control. Without the filter of science there is no limit to the nonsense and magical thinking that can flow into the health care system. Increasingly we cannot afford the waste of fanciful and ineffective interventions, and even if limited resources were not an issue – individual patients deserve better.

It is for these reasons that we oppose the attempts by proponents of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to erode or eliminate the science-based standard of care in medicine. Proponents differ mostly on how open they are about this goal, but there is no escaping the reality that at the heart of the very concept of CAM is at least a double standard – one in which the science-based bar for inclusion is lowered for some favored modalities.

Proponents will sometimes argue (against all evidence) that this is not the case but rather that there is prejudice and closed-mindedness against certain types of treatments. This is reminiscent of the claims by proponents of creationism/intelligent design that their beliefs are unfairly treated by scientists and school systems. In fact both cultural movements use the same language and tactics to promote their ideology against the defenders of a science-based standard -the “academic freedom” and “health-care freedom” strategies are two sides of the same coin.

Our primary mechanism for opposing the weakening of the science-based standard in medicine is simply to point to the rhetoric and tactics of the CAM proponents themselves. While they largely operate below the radar, when the light is shone on what they are actually doing the “shruggie” masses sometimes take notice. This occurred recently in Ontario, and provides an excellent example of all that I described above.

The conflict is about the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s (CPSO) draft guidelines on Non-Allopathic (Non-Conventional) Therapies in Medical Practice. The first clue that these guidelines are likely to be problematic is in the title – the word “allopathic” is only used by CAM proponents. The term was coined by Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy, to refer to the conventional medicine of his day – prior to the incorporation of scientific methods into medicine. It does not reflect the philosophy or practice of modern medicine, and it is a pejorative term.

The guidelines also assume that “non-conventional therapies” should be incorporated into medical practice. Shouldn’t that be the real question, rather than just assuming they should be then exploring how to do so? The only justification given (the most common one given) is popularity (a fallacy deconstructed numerous times on this blog).

But that aside, here are the recommendations for how “non-conventional” therapies should be incorporated into practice:

Physicians are expected to propose both allopathic and non-allopathic therapeutic options that are clinically indicated or appropriate.

Any non-allopathic therapeutic options that physicians propose to patients must:
– have a demonstrable and reasonable connection, supported by sound clinical judgement, to the diagnosis reached;
– possess a favourable risk/benefit ratio, based on the merits of the option, the potential interactions with other treatments the patient is receiving, and other considerations the physician deems relevant;
– take into account the patient’s socio-economic status when the cost will be borne by the patient directly; and
– have a reasonable expectation of remedying or alleviating the patient’s health condition or symptoms.

Reasonable expectations of efficacy must be supported by sound evidence. The type of evidence required will depend on the nature of the therapeutic option in question, including, the risks posed to patients, and the cost of the therapy.

This superficially may sound fine, but is clearly crafted to lower the bar of scientific evidence for allowing “non-allopathic” treatments into medical practice. The guidelines stress “clinical judgment” rather than evidence-based standards. Further, the only time “sound evidence” is mentioned, it is immediately watered down by qualifying that the type of evidence will depend on the modality in question. Why is that?

The purpose of this language is to allow things like pragmatic studies (unblinded, uncontrolled studies) to serve as evidence for efficacy, something for which they are not designed. This is the sort of thing CAM proponents have been constantly calling for. Andrew Weil has advocated the inclusion of what he calls “uncontrolled clinical observation,” or what has traditional been called “anecdotal evidence.” David Katz from Yale’s Integrative Medicine program has called for “a more fluid concept of evidence.”

The evidence is absolutely clear – the CAM movement is about creating a double standard to allow in medical modalities that are not adequately science based, or to decrease the overall standard of care for medicine with healthcare freedom laws and guidelines that water-down what qualifies as evidence.

Fortunately there has been pushback against these proposed standards. The Canadian Medical Association had this to say:

“The use of complementary and alternative medicine in Canada should be founded on sound scientific evidence as to its safety, efficacy and effectiveness: the same standard by which physicians and all other elements of the health care system should be assessed. When alternative treatment modalities do demonstrate effectiveness, they are usually incorporated into the mainstream of medicine. Therefore, one could argue that complementary and alternative therapies are by definition less demonstrably effective than conventional medical treatment.”

This is exactly correct – CAM modalities by definition have not been adequately shown to be safe and effective, else they wouldn’t be CAM. In other words – we don’t need this special category of treatment. Its only practical functions are marketing and to create a double standard.

Even worse, these standards try to muzzle science-based professionals who would criticize unscientific modalities by including a provision that “non-clinical judgement” should be avoided. This too has caused push-back:

The guidelines may be “interpreted as impressing tight limits on physicians’ ability to state their honest, scientifically sound objections to pseudo-scientific medical theories and ideas,” the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism contended. “Their non-conventional medical counterparts feel no such compunction in spreading misinformation about legitimate medical practices such as vaccination, as well as in misrepresenting the scientific standing of dubious non-conventional practices.”

This has also been a long time strategy of the CAM movement – the use of political correctness to silence legitimate criticism. This is a strategy with which I am personally very familiar – attempts at appropriately criticizing unscientific philosophies or claims are often countered with accusations of being closed-minded, bigoted, or even on the take.


The proposed Ontario guidelines are a transparent attempt to water down the science-based standard of modern medicine to allow for what was once called fraud and quackery into medicine, and further to shield such quackery from appropriate science-based criticism. It is no an isolated incident, but is a primary strategy of those hoping to advance CAM into modern medicine.

It is heartening, however, to see that such attempts are now meeting some backlash. Perhaps the CAM proponents have overplayed their hand a bit and those who have been uneasy with the claims of CAM proponents have felt a little more empowered to speak up. Let’s hope this trend continues.


Cross-posted at Science-Based Medicine

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