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What are the dangers of complementary therapy?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘complementary’ as, “that which completes or makes perfect, or that which when added completes a whole.” In other words, although modern medical science struggles to make patients get better, complementary medicine helps patients to feel better and, who knows, by feeling better the act of healing itself may be complemented. It bothers me not at all if the touch of the healer or the hand of the therapeutic masseuse is guided by strange belief systems that are alien to me, provided the intention is to support the clinician in his or her endeavours rather than compete in the relativistic marketplace of ideas. If that is the case, then how can complementary medicine be dangerous?

I list here my concerns that will be expanded upon in my talk: complementary medicine is used as a cloak for alternative medicine; it does not make the patient feel better; it allows placebos in through the back door; it may interact with effective drug therapy; it is a waste of precious resources; and it subverts science and is an insult to intelligence.

I can summarize the first three concerns very simply. Many proponents of alternative medicine attempt to achieve acceptability by claiming that they are complementary practitioners and then, via the back door, they attempt to subvert the treatments offered by the medical practitioners. They may also claim to make the patient feel better, but they never trouble themselves by measuring the quality of life of their clients. Even if their clients do feel better, this more than likely results from the use of placebos – a practice that is considered unethical by the medical profession.

Frequently used herbal remedies are either of no proven value or may interact with conventional drug therapy; example interactions include those of Ginkgo Biloba with aspirin and warfarin (coumadin), St. John’s wort with antidepressants, and Ginseng with warfarin. These remedies also do not come cheap and may be a waste of public or private resources. However, my main concern is that so many of these implausible remedies are based on absurd beliefs that are allowed, slowly, to poison our minds and subvert rational thinking. I wish to expand at length on this, using homeopathy – a popular ‘complementary medicine’ – as an example.