Crossing the line

J.B. Saleeby M.D. asked several questions in his Oct. 2 commentary in Xpress. One was, “What have we done as physicians to push people to embrace such silly notions and odd alternative therapies?” He cites several possible reasons but dismisses them as being insufficient to induce people to embrace such “foolish” practices. But his article actually contains several clues as to why folks might dislike allopathic physicians.

Among the things Saleeby mentions are the need to uphold the Hippocratic Oath and “anecdotal horror stories with a lot of ‘spin.'” Upholding the oath implies that doctors will “do no harm.” The “anecdotal horror stories” phrase implies that the horrors described are not real, or are at least rare. But many physicians apparently feel that death is harmful and somehow violates the oath. This leads to an attitude of “no one dies on my shift.” Walk down the corridor of any hospital and you’ll see a great many very old people whose bodies and minds have clearly failed. Yet they’re being aggressively treated for all their symptoms with drugs and surgery. And the side effects of the drugs and surgery are being treated with — you guessed it — more drugs and surgery.

These are not “anecdotal horror stories” — it’s the system. I believe it’s true that the majority of the average person’s lifetime medical expenses are incurred during the last few weeks or months they’re alive. And these days, it’s a widespread practice to have a living will to protect yourself from this treatment that “does no harm.” People don’t want to die the way they see their parents and grandparents dying. They don’t want to be in a hospital, debilitated by drugs and surgery when their life is clearly over. People don’t want to go to a doctor who thinks that prescribing surgery and 15 different drugs to an 85-year-old is “doing no harm.” This is a very big part of the track record of allopathic medicine.

Dr. Saleeby didn’t say how he determined that his fellow booth-holders at the Atlanta show were “charlatans, fakes and quacks.” I get the strong impression, from the way he put quotes around each of the techniques he mentioned, that he objects to the techniques themselves and didn’t feel he needed to examine the effectiveness of the individual practitioners he saw. I don’t want to defend these people: I wasn’t there, and there are certainly many ineffective (and even a few insincere) practitioners of nonallopathic medicine. (There are, of course, more than a few ineffective practitioners of allopathic medicine, as well.) But this kind of out-of-hand dismissal is not only hypocritical — it’s also another reason people don’t like allopathic physicians.

I assume that Saleeby’s objection is to practices that aren’t supported by right and proper double-blind studies, and to practices that don’t involve some kind of physical or chemical intervention — that is, healing without a physical cause.

Dismissing these techniques out of hand is hypocritical for several reasons. To begin with, few of the practices of allopathic medicine are supported by double-blind studies. A study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment found that 80 percent of the medical practices used in the United States are not supported by double-blind studies. What’s more, every one of those double-blind drug studies involves a placebo group. A significant fraction (25 to 50 percent) of the people taking the placebo show the same improvement said to be produced by the “real medicine.” This is a clear example of the healing without a physical cause that Dr. Saleeby seems so opposed to.

Among the “suspect” practices Saleeby dismisses is practitioners “waving their hands.” Yet energy healing by “waving the hands” over the patient is actually part of allopathic nursing practice. Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch are energy healing techniques practiced by 30,000 to 40,000 nurses in this country. They receive training in these techniques in nursing schools and in their continuing-education programs, where they earn CEUs for taking the courses. Hospitals have written procedures for Krieger-Kunz Therapeutic Touch and offer training classes.

Allopathic medicine is in the same position as the pope who arrested Galileo: Doctors are defending their current model against valid observations that are at odds with the model. This is a serious mistake in any kind of science. The current model of chemicals and surgery as the only effective medical media is still limited by the deal Descartes cut with the pope back in the 1600s: You take the mind and spirit, we’ll take the body and the rocks. Energy- and intent-based healing techniques are used all over the world. They, too, have a long track record. But the AMA is falling behind even the Catholic Church when it comes to acknowledging superstitions: The current pope felt obliged to apologize for his predecessor’s treatment of Galileo.

People don’t want to go to doctors who spend time and energy defending an incomplete healing model. All the hand waving and totem animals that Dr. Saleeby dismisses are ways of focusing intent and directing energy to heal people. Perhaps acupuncture is acceptable to Dr. Saleeby because there is a physical intervention in the form of needles. But acupuncture is essentially an energy practice. The needles are not the therapeutic medium: Practitioners of qigong external healing get the same effect by pointing their first two fingers at the acupuncture points (waving their hands).

And allopathic physicians who also practice alternative medicine should be very careful: The line between hand-waving charlatans and proper doctors of “real medicine” is not where you think it is.

[Doug Bennett lives in Brevard.]

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