Alternative

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Note: This post is a tangential companion piece to another piece I wrote, which you can read here.

Before I changed careers and became a dietitian, I put my math degree to use as an operations research analyst for the U.S. Department of Transportation.  I worked on many projects, one of which was helping to manage a mathematical model of the alternative fuels industry.  When I first joined the project, I wondered why – if energy sources other than gasoline existed – did we continue to primarily use gas for our cars?  Then I learned that all of these alternatives had serious downsides.  Fuel X would reduce tailpipe emissions, but cause massive pollution output at the plant where it was produced.  Fuel Y was so unstable that a simple fender bender could trigger an explosion.  Fuel Z was so expensive that it would price out many drivers.  I still remember one of my colleagues, who had been working in the field much longer than me, saying, “These alternative fuels are alternatives for a reason.”

Alternative medicine isn’t all that different.  If its unusual tests and approaches worked as well as its practitioners say they do, these tests and treatments would not be alternative, they would be mainstream.  I support an individual’s right to pursue the kind of healthcare that feels right to him or her, and I understand that not everybody wants to stick to the mainstream route.  In fact, I am glad there are people out there who question the mainstream, push the boundaries, and try new things, as that is often how progress is made.  My concern is just that alternative practitioners need to do a better job with transparency and disclosure.  In other words, they should be disclosing that a given approach is an unproven hypothesis, if that is indeed the case, not passing it off as a well-documented conclusion.

As an example, consider the plight of one of my best friends from high school, who wrote to me recently because an alternative nutritionist told her she should go gluten-free to help her rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  My friend says she has read on many websites that gluten causes RA.  I suspect that one day we will have a good understanding of the role, if any, that gluten plays in RA development and exacerbation.  That day, however, is not today.  For someone to put it on a website or recommend it to my friend as fact is just, well, in my opinion anyway, irresponsible, unethical, and unprofessional.

Sometimes people feel so poorly and get so desperate for an answer that they will listen to anybody who gives them one, independent of whether that answer is correct.  I do not mean that as a knock against any of the patients, but rather as criticism of practitioners who capitalize on desperate people making emotional decisions when they should instead hit the brakes and help said people make informed decisions.  If, for example, the nutritionist explained to my friend that the gluten-free diet is an experimental approach to dealing with RA and my friend – fully understanding the experimental nature of the approach as well as its potential pros and cons – decides to go ahead with it, then by all means.

These practitioners should disclose that some of their approaches and tests are not terribly accurate and are not widely accepted as valid, but they often do not.  Paradoxically, offering this disclosure would probably give them more credibility, not less.  Remember in school when a student posed a question that stumped the professor?  The professor who admitted “I don’t know” earned trust and respect, while the professor who made up an answer that was clearly BS looked bad even though that is the exact outcome he hoped to avoid by inventing an answer.

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