The Guardian view on alternative medicines: handle with care

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By Guardian News

Seekers after unconventional treatments should do so on the understanding that they have not been proven to work

Human health is complicated, and while the history of medicine is often represented as a triumphant march from darkness into light, for many people it doesn’t feel like that. Partly this is because we take so much for granted. It’s hard to imagine a time when infection and childbirth were serious threats to life. But it’s also true that as life expectancy has extended and lifestyles have changed, new illnesses and conditions have taken the place of old ones. Dementia, obesity and anxiety disorders are among them.

Sometimes a visit to the doctor doesn’t make us, or our loved ones, feel better. There is nothing wrong with looking beyond conventional medicine for activities or remedies that may help. But people should understand that such “alternatives” are not tested in the same way as the drugs or exercises prescribed by doctors. While manufacturers, practitioners and users of treatments including herbs and osteopathy may make claims about their effectiveness, the public should treat such claims with healthy scepticism: try something by all means, but do not mistake heartfelt testimonies or lengthy appointments for evidence-based medicine.

There has long been a minority of members of the public who opted out of orthodoxy in medicine as in other areas of life. Until recently this was generally viewed as a personal choice that needed to be challenged only in extraordinary circumstances (for example if life-saving treatment was denied to a child). That this tradition of tolerance is now being questioned is largely due to recent falls in the take-up of childhood vaccinations. Last month Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, went public with “serious concerns” about homeopathy, and a decision to renew the accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths is being challenged after it was discovered that some members promoted a nonexistent “cure” for autism.

The situation is not unique to the UK, with the internet providing conduits for anti-vaxx and other myths that did not previously exist. This week Europe’s leading doctors issued a warning about unproven Chinese medicines, and the World Health Organization’s recent decision to grant them recognition.

Regulation is important, as these doctors point out. Policymakers must be alert to the risks posed by unscrupulous or incompetent operators to vulnerable, unwell people, as well as the danger to the general public of anti-vaxxers. There is also a more general cause for concern if the market for alternative medicine is growing because people are choosing magic over science. Rationality matters in principle. But it need not crowd out curiosity or open-mindedness. Placebo effects are well documented, as is the human need for attention. Unconventional ideas and methods can help people, as long as they understand the difference between what is tested, and proven to be effective, and what is neither.