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The Problem with Alternative Medicine

Aug 9th, 2013

Credit: mkhmarketing via Flickr under Creative Commons

We all remember the late, great Steve Jobs. He was the man who revolutionized the way that we use technology. From the iMac to the iPhone his creative dreams are the everyday work solutions for millions of people around the world (you can tell I used to work at the Apple Store right?).  Jobs died in 2011 of complications related to his 2003 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Following his diagnosis Jobs made the decision to treat his condition with a variety of herbal and alternative medical treatments in addition to traditional medicine. According to his doctors Jobs’ cancer was the most treatable form of pancreatic cancer and could easily have been treated early on with surgery. Instead, Jobs chose to forgo surgery at first and instead trust his life to alternative therapies.

But they didn’t help. Jobs’ condition worsened as the years went on. After several surgeries and a liver transplant, he was forced to leave the company he built because his health no longer permitted it. Not long after in October 2011 Jobs died from complications caused by the condition.

“He had the only kind of pancreatic cancer that is treatable and curable. He essentially committed suicide,” said Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in a June 2013 article in USA Today about alternative medicine.

Job’s story is not necessarily the typical alternative medical story, but it does illustrate the problem that a fixation on alternative medicine can have. In that same USA Today article, author Liz Szabo finds numerous examples of alternative medical treatments being taken to the extreme.

One example Szabo gives is that of a girl whose mother had been feeding her over 80 different types of alternative herbal supplements. As a result, her daughter developed acute pancreatitis and ended up in the emergency room.

The mother’s reasoning behind the extreme regime of supplements for her daughter was that she believed her daughter had chronic Lyme disease, which in and of itself is a controversial topic. Doctors were able to get the girl’s condition under control and she was discharged after two weeks. According to critics though, these types of stories are not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to alternative medicine, especially supplements.

Alternative medicine in the United States and in particular herbal supplements is a billion-dollar industry. In 2007 Americans spent $4.4 billion on these supplements that exist in a pseudo wild west of regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA classifies herbal supplements as dietary supplements, meaning that they’re not subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as normal drugs.

Because of this deregulation, it’s common to find actual drugs in these supplements, some of which are extremely dangerous. This year a number of amateur athletes died after taking bodybuilding supplements that illegally contained the stimulant DMAA. DMAA can cause high blood pressure and heart attacks in some cases.

Why the system is the way that it is can likely be attributed to lobbying on behalf of these supplement companies. Not to single them out as the only companies lobbying Washington to keep the status quo, but this is an area of medicine that has long been unregulated and people are suffering because of that.

Perhaps in the era of accountable care under the Affordable Care Act, we might see a trend toward regulation. But as long as Americans keep buying and these supplements remain profitable you can bet these companies will fight it.

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