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Alternative medicine – most doctors still don’t get it

Talking to a family doctor in the UK about cures for depression he bragged” “10% of my entire list is on SSRIs.” So what about alternatives?  Exercise, diet, meditation?  His reply: “I’m a doctor paid to prescribe pills. I don’t understand alternative therapies and I don’t want to.” All too often, that attitude still reigns supreme.

The gap between formal scientific medicine and alternative medicine is growing.  What is extraordinary is how ignorant so many doctors are about wellness, diet and even the availability and importance of simple, medically-proven devices and treatments. This means that many patients look elsewhere. I speak from personal experience.

A friend who has recently moved to New York is struck by the plethora of stores and outlets offering alternative medicine. He says this reflects the fact that many Americans are uninsured and so seek help from other sources.But it also reflects the way the medical profession closes its mind to other techniques and approaches…

His limp made him easy to spot. “Yes,” said the hotel manager, he had smashed his knee playing cricket. Doctors don’t want to operate. And none of doctors he had seen had thought to refer him for orthotics

That mirrored my own experience. Two consultants in the late 1990s told me that there was nothing, nothing at all, I could do to halt the progress of my arthritis. The second, when pressed, finally said he knew “a little man” who made things to slip into your shoes. At the time, I could barely walk 500 metres without facing pain. An operation felt inevitable.

Nearly two decades later, thanks to orthotics and Masai Bare Foot trainers, my arthritis has not worsened. Indeed, at 56, I am planning a walking holiday with my sons in the Lake District. Just in the last three months I’ve discovered that standing all day at work greatly increases muscle strength.

A friend has finally been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that affects 1m Brits and is debilitating – tiredness, muscle aches, bee sting pains and a sense of not being able to think straight. It is a real condition – imaging can spot signals from the brain which receives false pain messages.  Diagnosis took years, but the consultant was clearly an expert.  Treatment? “Rest, gentle exercise, but this is a chronic condition that will never go.”  Yet again, you have to scour the web for the alternatives which actually help patients. Magnesium and zinc supplements and alkaline diets have (so far) worked so well that she went clubbing until one in the morning this weekend.

This may be a flash in the pan (although many others with the condition recommend this treatment).

And don’t get me started on the UK family doctor who told my 91 year old aunt-in-law that she shouldn’t go on a low salt diet to help with her high blood pressure.  This would come as no surprise to Dr Richard Moore, the scientist who wrote The High Blood Pressure Solution, which advocates cutting salt. The most fascinating chapter is the one covering the resistance he has encountered from the medical profession.

Yes, doctors should differentiate between hard scientific stuff and softer alternative stuff.

But they should look for and embrace good science (such as The high Blood Pressure Solution) and understand and be able to talk through the softer options for patients who want to pursue them. At the end of the day, the patient with a bad limp, and a painful leg, will fork out €200 for an orthotic on the chance that it will work. And trying an alkaline diet and supplements for two weeks, if it lessens chronic pain, is hardly a high price to pay. Patients, and common sense, tell us that to discard such treatments, unless they meet some gold standard of blind trials, is NUTS.

And anyone running a healthcare service company should foster a similar approach within their own business. Apart from anything else, you will lose an increasingly important part of potential revenue and customers, if you don’t. The diagnosis of a chronic condition is important but its treatment, by whatever means brings relief without causing active damage, is far more important and something good doctors should occupy themselves with as a matter of course.

And don’t bury your head in the sands about the downsides of modern medicine either. You run an imaging service business? Fine. So what are you doing about measuring and reducing radiation levels?

We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to Max Hotopf or call 0207 183 3779.