I read an opinion piece today in the New York Times titled “How to Counter the Circus of Pseudoscience”. As a practitioner of “pseudoscience” who aspires to go to medical school, many conflicting thoughts ran through my head, ranging from defensive to sympathetic. The author is a medical doctor who is highly critical of naturopaths and Goop-inspired natural medicine. Her main problem seemed to be the overconfidence of many “practitioners” (her quotation marks, not mine) in their scientifically questionable knowledge and methods. While dismissing and invalidating the entire field of natural medicine and it’s “practitioners”, she also enthusiastically trumpets her own fields ability to reflect on their mistakes and know their limitations– “especially the good ones”.
What about the good practitioners of natural medicine? Are they allowed to exist in this doctor’s paradigm? Are we all quacks, with medical doctors alone holding the light to the afflictions of humanity?
What I found this author failed to acknowledge was a very common situation when a person goes to their doctor, and the doctor either can’t find anything medically wrong with them, or possibly even fails to address their needs. It is here where natural or complementary medicine can be quite effective. In my own practice over the years, I’ve seen many people with unresolved health problems, whose tests come back from their doctor negative, but who then find results through acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Can I explain my treatment scientifically? No, not completely. Do people find relief from it? Many times yes, and sometimes no. And if I can’t help them after a couple of session, I refer then to someone who I think can, and suggest terminating the treatment.
Where I feel like this author went astray is her failure to recognize that people want help with their problems, and if doctors don’t have the softer tools to help them, they’ll look for someone who does. Neither does she differentiate between natural health “practitioners” who are reckless with their belief that supplements and right living are cure-alls, and those of us who know the limits of our chosen medicine. We do exist as a breed of natural medicine practitioners, who refer people back to their doctors, who don’t feel comfortable treating people without having the diagnostic testing to rule out more serious underlying conditions, who keep a vigilant eye out for red flags, and who are aware, for better and for worse, that the medicine that they practice isn’t and can’t necessarily be validated by science.
Like many in my field, I got into natural medicine because I wanted to help people, just like many M.Ds. I thought natural medicine would make a good tool with which to partner with patients to find a preventive healthcare regiment that worked to keep them healthy, and would enable me to spend more time with patients than the average doctor. I envisioned partnering with a patient’s primary care provider and any specialist they had to help keep track of the patient’s total wellness, each field complementing the others. This was idealistic and somewhat naive of me, as that sometimes doesn’t even happen within the medical field itself. So often, we find ourselves “counter to” the medical establishment, and the medical establishment often counters us. But what if we worked with each other?
Opposition often breeds estrangement, resentment, and lack of trust. The more the allopathic medical profession fails to see what natural medicine has to offer, the more natural medicine in inclined to dig in their heels and put blinders on. What would things look like now, if instead of prescribing opioids as a blanket remedy for pain, doctors took the time to really investigate which types of pain issues tended to respond well to acupuncture, massage and chiropractic? What if instead of dismissing the entire natural medicine field as full of “practitioners”, MDs, ARNPs, and PAs and nurses worked to find the ethical practitioners in the field? Both fields have their bad eggs, but neither does itself or its patients any favors when it dismisses or downplays the other.