Traditional Medicine: Inhibition of the Clinician Ambition

I was only able to attend the second day of Science Online London 2010 but was glad to be able to hear Dr Evan Harris’s keynote talk on “Turning online science into real world policy change” and the follow-up break-out session on “The Sci Vote Movement”. Any gathering of the blognoscenti runs the risk of descending into navel-gazing, so it was good to be reminded that the point of much of our online activity as bloggers or scientists should be to have some impact in the real world.

Of course for many people there are robust connections between these two spheres. Indeed, my own experiences of being involved in supporting Simon Singh as he sought to defend himself against the BCA libel suit brought home to me how valuable online access was to propelling real-life activity — and activism.

Singh got into hot water by questioning the evidence base for chiropractic, only one of a plethora of alternative medicine therapies that are on offer to the British public, often accompanied by exaggerated claims of efficacy. His Trick or Treatment book, co-authored with Dr Edzard Ernst, is a good place to find out about the paucity of the evidence for not only chiropractic*, but also acupuncture, homeopathy and reflexology, among many others.

Another thing that these alternative practices have in common is the desire for the veneer of ‘approval’ that may be conferred by the establishment of official regulation. In the UK, unfortunately, the Department of Health is too often happy to play along and is now proposing to set up a professional registration scheme for practitioners of traditional medicine.

You might think that this would involve screening the practitioners for the quality of their treatments.

You might think –as an unsuspecting member of the public — that registration means practitioners are on a par with members of the medical profession.

You might think that the top priority of the Department of Health would be the health and treatment of illness of the UK population.

But you would be wrong because the registration process makes no test of the efficacy of the treatments offered by traditional medicines. It is enough for them to be traditional.

As a practitioner it is enough, therefore, to be an old wife with a tale.

To highlight the lunacy of these proposals (see here [pdf] for more details), the Voice of Young Science (VoYS – @ voiceofyoungsci) is planning to protest outside the Department of Health from 11:30 am on Wednesday of this week (8th Sept). Evan Harris alluded to it briefly in his talk yesterday. If you can, please go along to participate. If you have an old wives’ tale of how to treat blisters or nettle stings, or you know what happens if you don’t eat your potato skins, you will qualify for the award — on the spot — of a prestigious Diploma in Old WIves’ Traditional Medicine. The assessment only takes 2 minutes. Go on: you know you deserve it.

The scheme is targeted at acupuncture, herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and other traditional medicine systems. The ultimate aim of the protest is not to denigrate these traditions, but to hold them to the same standards as modern evidence-based medicine. And to point out to the Department of Health that the British public deserves better than veneer. It deserves substance.


Update: Fri 10th Sept, 08:15 am: The protest event passed off successfully on Wednesday last (though unfortunately I couldn’t make it because of work commitments). Photos are now available on flickr.



*At the time of writing, you can download the chapter on chiropractic for free.

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7 Responses to Traditional Medicine: Inhibition of the Clinician Ambition

  1. Matt Brown says:

    Hmm, I don’t know many novel old wives’ tales, but I know a good way to demonstrate homeopathy to politicians. It involves diluting David Miliband by a factor of 1000 to get David Microband, then by another thousandth to get Ed Balls.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    @Matt – Ha, ha!

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    On an unrelated note, there has been some disquiet expressed on Twitter about using ‘old wives tales’ as an element of the campaign. Some have objected that it is ageist/sexist — denigrating old people and especially women, who may traditionally have transmitted this traditional knowledge.
    Maybe it’s a blind spot of mine, but I’m not really seeing the nature of the offence. I have never before heard anyone object to the phrase, ‘old wives’ tale’. Some people have weighed in on Twitter to defend their grannies but I confess I never for a second made a link between my mental image of old wives (whom I think of as mediaeval figures) and anyone living today.

  4. kamile ersoz says:

    Thanx a lot for this nice article. I will add this article to my blog

  5. Stephen Moss says:

    It’s depressing to think at these tough times that the govt (or NHS) might waste valuable funds like this. Evidence-based policy has a long way to go in the UK.

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Great post, Stephen. If anyone is feeling cross about these issues, I highly recommend a very funny blogpost by Martin Robbins, here:

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    @Stephen – EBM sure has a long way to go – even within the realm of mainstream medicine (where a certain amount of tradition still prevails over evidence-based approaches).
    Thanks for the link Jenny – it is quite easy to poke fun at homeopaths as I recall…! 😉 There is a serious campaign to be fought, but it’s nice to have a bit of light relief from time to time.