If you got syphilis in the nineteenth century, you had a few options, none of them very good.
You could take some mercury, a toxic poison that included brain damage and death among its potential side effects. You could ingest an extract of the Guaiacum tree, something the afflicted had been trying with little luck for hundreds of years. Or, well-meaning doctors might actually inject you with more syphilis, since they really didn’t understand some basics about how diseases worked.
Today, thanks to modern medicine, you can take an antibiotic.
That’s not just our century’s guess at a treatment, but one that has actually been shown to work 90% to 100% of the time. In careful experiments, scientists are still trying to refine this approach. They’re not just throwing darts at a board.
Yet that is exactly what people are doing when they try a menu of “alternative” approaches — harkening back to a time before evidence-based medicine — instead of opting for a “conventional” course of care.
Why? It often comes down to a basic misunderstanding of what is involved in modern medicine.
“I hate the idea that there’s a difference between alternative and conventional, West and East,” Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, said in an interview with Tech Insider last year. “Those are all false dichotomies.”
All that matters, Caulfield explained, is what has been shown to be effective — whether that’s a pharmaceutical or something else entirely.
“We have science-based medicine — stuff that works — and stuff that doesn’t,” he said. That’s the real distinction.
People who think the difference is that alternative treatments are somehow purer or more likely to heal than what scientists have tested and calibrated are usually mistaken.
Of course, it would be naive to pretend that doctors are infallible or that money does not corrupt medicine. It does. That’s one reason so many patients seek out alternative treatments. (There are other reasons too; Western medicine does not yet have all the answers to many of our hardest problems.)
But don’t be fooled: What’s often thought of as “alternative” medicine is also big business. Every year, Americans spend more than $34 billion on a variety of non-mainstream treatments, with much of that money lining the pockets of practitioners hawking unproven cures and preying on people desperate enough to try just about anything.
So what doctors really mean when they talk about “conventional” versus “alternative” treatments is “things we know work” and “things we know don’t work or aren’t yet sure about.”
In reality, most modern medicines come from the natural world. The only difference is that they are refined, tested, and carefully dosed.
If something comes from a practice that is seen as “alternative” but then is shown to work, well — then it’s not really alternative any longer. It’s medicine.