This Ain’t no Party, This Ain’t no Disco, This Ain’t no Fooling Around
It’s a grim business, medicine I mean. For all the hype it’s nothing more than a futile struggle with death, a battle lost in the early stages by some, a bit later by others, but lost all the same in the end. If you’re lucky you make it to fifty with no Past Medical History until one day your cholesterol is noted to be a little high or you get a little rectal bleeding and things are never the same again. Then you get a little winded and wake up one morning to discover that it’s been ten years since your bypass and all of a sudden your feet seem to be swollen most of the week and you’re urinating all of the time. Your couple of pills a day have become a plastic pill organizer and your Past Medical History, once easily checked as “none” on all of the forms, is now spread through several different computer systems and thick files in various specialist’s offices. You get older and sicker. Your quality of life diminishes with each passing year and you gradually forget what it was like to sprint up a flight of stairs or run to catch a bus. Eventually simple things like getting out of a car or making it to your bedside commode become the major ordeals of a pain-filled day and you are rushed to the hospital every month for fear that you may have at last suffered the Big One, the final event that will put you out of reach of the medical profession’s best efforts to wrest a little more time for you.
In the end, the Reaper who has been waiting in the cool shadows just beyond the incandescent glare on the emaciated ruin of your body gently reaches through the crowd frantically trying to restart your heart and politely claims you as his own.
That’s how it goes. Your physicians are natural pessimists and can see the end for all but the youngest of their patients. We do what we can, of course, and it is our privilege to occasionally snatch you away from death but this is not done without a cost. Our treatments are crude, our understanding of physiology imperfect, and we do not yet have the knowledge or the sophisitication to precisely target your disease leaving the rest of your body unscathed. Every therapy yet devised has a dark parcel of side effects and adverse outcomes. When you start your long march through the medical world the risks of these therapies are relatively benign. We put you on an innocuous little blood pressure pill and warn you that it may cause a persistant but otherwise harmless cough. A few years later you become light-headed from the medications that are absolutely essential to control your potentially lethal cardiac arrythmia and your physicians debate whether to take you off of blood thinners lest you fall and suffer a catastrophic bleed in your brain. Time goes by and to save you from pancreatic cancer the surgeons shell you out like you were some kind of mammalian oyster.
At no time however, will your physicians ever promise a magic cure, a therapy that will definitively fix the problem with no ill effects leaving alone the precarious balance of your fantastically complicated body. At best they will promise good results with minimal and easily tolerated side effects. At worst the therapies they will reluctantly propose are almost as bad as the disease they will ameliorate and the subject of, for example, chemotherapy or a risky aortic repair is broached with dread to a patient who must be made to understand that real medicine is not as it appears in the popular media.
At a philosophical level, leaving aside the utter ridiculousness of Reiki healers shooting sacred energy from their fingers, this is the difference between real medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicine whose practitioners, as they don’t treat real pathology, have never developed humility in the face of disease. It is easy, for example, for your acupuncturist to promise a perfect cure because they’re not really treating anything, just some nebulous mumbo-jumbo like a dysfunction of your ability to receive pure qi from the heavens. Side effects? None, of course. It’s perfect medicine because, despite being based on a completely imaginary idea of physiology that has no relation whatsoever to the way things actually are, it can magically target your imaginary complaint.
All medicine is a metaphor of course. We speak of proton pumps and “watershed strokes” as a way to explain complex structure and pathology that would be otherwise too cumbersome to describe. Ideally however you would want your metaphors to closely match what they purport to represent. Refining these metaphors is the purpose of medical science and the appropriatness of a therapy depends on the level to which it coincides with the most reasonable description of the underlying dysfunction. Almost all of complementary and alternative medicine is based on metaphors which were either, as is the case with Homeopathy fabricated from whole cloth, or in the case of Acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine develped at a time when it was impossible to know any better. “Meridians” make sense when your knowledge of the body is based on religious superstition and mysticism. Once you discover the true function of blood vessels and nerves, however, it is time to put away your belief in qi, a spiritual construct that as a metaphor for disease has no basis in real physiology. The metaphors are diverging. Acupuncture stands still with its feet firmly planted in a time when people routinely died in their thirties from diseases that modern medicine has eliminated. It still exists because real medicine provides the practitioner of Complementary and Alternative Medicine a risk-free environment in which to operate as well as a steady stream of customers who cannot accept the truth, namely that we all die, our health fails, and, as there is no evolutionary disadvantage to it, we seem to be genetically programmed to wear out.
So you see, to practice real medicine is to create problems. Fifty years ago the majority of my multiply co-morbid and incredibly sick patients would have died in their fifties from the first of the many conditions which they have today accumulated. No amount of Acupuncture, homeopathy, or Reiki would have got them through their first heart attack just as no amount can now treat the hundreds of petty ailments which have become the bread and butter of the quacks.
Snake oil is something of an American tradition but it is only recently that its purveyors have had the benefit of physicians to do their heavy lifting.