Monday, April 14, 2008

Alternative Medicine and the Great Pharmaceutical Conspiracy

I am, in my heart, a skeptic.

That is to say, I don't tend to form opinions about things before researching them, and I can recognize real research as opposed to the biased stuff.

However, I believe in the power of yoga, massage, and tai chi to improve health, because I understand that such things are relaxing and good for the muscles, and relaxation improves health. I believe herbal remedies often work very well, because honestly, almost every medication we have today was derived from some form of plant or animal product that someone, somewhere, probably used to heal patients. Of course, they're way more useful, potent, and free of toxins in the refined form. I think DOs are a perfectly acceptable alternative to MDs and I would go to a licensed chiropractor for joint and back pain that did not respond to painkillers (though not for anything else).

So when I say I am a skeptic, I'm not the kind of person who thinks that all alternative therapies should be outlawed, or that any therapy that has not yet been tested in clinical trials must be completely useless. The truth is, clinical trials take time and money. Pharmaceutical companies can ensure that they have the safest and most effective product by charging high rates for their medications and trying those medications out on anyone who will volunteer or accept payment for it. It's usually many many years after the invention of a product that doctors even start hearing about it, much less the general public (the exception being new drugs that might cure some horrible and incurable disease, like cancer or AIDs, which the media loves even though it seems like 80% of them turn out to be dead ends).

Meanwhile, "alternative" medicine's inventors and promoters usually have certain traits in common: First of all, they are not affiliated with a licensed pharmaceutical company, usually because they either have decided Big Pharma is evil (a common problem in our society), because they do not have the credentials required to work for such a company, because any pharmaceutical company will look at their idea and say it's not worth the investment because it's so unlikely to work compared to the cost involved to develop it, or, and this is rare, because the pharmaceutical companies do not want the product to be made as it will not make them any money.

For example, medical marijuana? Pharmaceutical companies are just NOW starting to investigate it as a serious pain reliever, and they will never market it unless it is completely refined and processed because they're hardly going to make money if they announce that we can grow an effective painkiller in our backyards with absolutely no need for them. They are a business. Does that make them evil? No. They're still gonna look into it, and maybe whatever they come up with will be safer and more effective than smoking pot and it will be great. But they're a business. And if they weren't a business, where would the enormous amount of money required to research, develop, and test new medications come from? I don't know about you, but I sure as hell would prefer a business in charge of making sure my pain pills work so well that I keep buying from them and not their competitor than the government to be in charge of churning out the cheapest possible medication to shut me up while they lower taxes.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Alternative medicine. If a practitioner has decided that Big Pharma is evil, they have shot themselves in the foot, because there are three places that a practitioner can get the money and resources to turn an alternative therapy into a mainstream makes-lots-of-money one: Pharmaceutical companies, universities with a bunch of bored grad students, and the government. Strike out the biggest one-- pharmaceutical companies-- and you can have your research done by the lowest-bidder government or the universities, who have to apply for grants which most often come from-- you guessed it-- the government, or private industry like a pharmaceutical company. As it is, universities do a lot of testing on alternative medicine, but they can't do it in the same organized, methodical way that a pharmaceutical company with a lot of money riding on it can.

Now let's assume that they didn't go into it hating pharmaceutical companies, and instead applied to them and were turned down due to lack of credentials or the compnay thinking it was a poor investment. If they have insufficient credentials, then they should either go back to school and get the needed credentials and see if they still think that chelation will treat autism, or find someone who does have the credentials who is similarly interested. Chances are if they don't have the credentials and can't get them, or get someone with them to take an interest in their work, their work is based on that dream they had last week and not on actual rational thought, and you shouldn't be using it.

But what if they have the credentials, but the pharmaceutical company simply decided not to invest in whatever they are supporting? Well, that doesn't mean that Big Pharma is out to get them. They're gonna spend the same money on clinical trials and effectiveness studies if they are researching a new cancer wonderdrug as if they are trying to determine if Kombucha tea does anything to the body except look gross. They're gonna look through what evidence there is to support the idea, what evidence there is against it, and then yeah, they're gonna pick the investments that appear to be most likely to be worth the cost. And they pick wrong a lot (that's partially why meds are so pricey), but they're more likely to pick wrong if the wrong is supported by previous scientific study than if it's something the promoter pulled out of his ass. Plus, they have to market it to the mainstream, so even if you assume things like vibrational energy are real and most people are simply deluded, if most people will read vibrational energy on their pain pills and think "Uh, yeah, no thanks, that's ridiculous," a company would be stupid to invest in it.

Then, the final choice, the company doesn't want to do it because it's not gonna make them any money. PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES ARE NOT CHARITIES. Come on. They have to get their money back somehow, and clinical trials and R&D are expensive. I don't understand why people assume that doctors, lawyers, pharmaceutical companies etc should exist purely to help them, and not ask for anything in return. Honestly, even if the company WAS a non-profit, as many hospitals are, they can't LOSE money. Money does not magically appear because people are sick or in need, unless you're a politician.

The truth is, there are many alternative therapies out there that probably do work well enough that they would pass all the tests and be a worthwhile investment, but they don't appear it on the surface, or maybe they work but the cost outweighs the benefits compared to just taking the current medication, or maybe they work but not as well as (or as safely as) something we already have, or maybe they work but they sound silly and no one would ever buy them. It's a shame, but it's life. Hopefully those alternative therapies can be tested at universities enough to have a legitimate scientific backing to their claims, and maybe they will then be accepted by the more mainstream industries.

However, those alternative therapies are drowned out by the extremes, the coffee enemas, the chelation for autism, the psychic surgery, the fluoridation conspiracy theories-- the ones that quite clearly have no possible validity to them according to anyone who understands science, anatomy, chemistry, biology and in some cases physics. And that's why the potentially good therapies aren't investigated as they should be or accepted by the mainstream. It's not Big Pharma that's causing them strife, it's the fact that they are being lumped in for whatever reason with every other ridiculous and impossible quack therapy that anyone ever made a million dollars off. So alternative therapy practitioners-- stop blaming Big Pharma. Start blaming the snake oil salesmen.

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However, at the same time, I don't think that alternative therapies should be restricted unless they are actually dangerous. I think they should have to be tested and approved by the FDA according to the same standards as whatever they claim to be. If they claim to be a medicine or remedy, they should be held to the same safety standards as medicine, and require a prescription or not accordingly. If they are dietary supplements, they should also be tested (the US is atrocious in this regard, we need to have stricter guidelines about labeling and contents of supplements-- I'm sick of guessing if a brand of fish oil tablets will work or not). If it's a food, it should have nutritional information.

And if it's toxic, it should be treated as any other toxic substance. Alternative medications, whether they work or not, can be quite dangerous. At least most mainstream medications contain compounds that are safe in low quantities but will cause you to vomit if you overdose-- you're hardly gonna get that with herbal "supplements." Before alternative therapy can be held anywhere near the standards of conventional medicine it needs to hold itself to the same standards of safety.

Oh, and because I read a story about this on the internet: If your child has an ear infection, GIVE THEM THE AMOXICILLIN, don't wait until their eardrum perforates! Good god, it's an antibiotic, not rat poison. At least, if you must try alternative methods, check in their ear first and don't drop your homeopathic ear drops in through the perforation for several days until the kid is puking and screaming nonstop due to the fact you dumped WATER into their MIDDLE EAR. Good lord, that was horrific to read about.

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