Dispatches is a quality CBC Radio show. It covers global issues that aren’t covered by the mainstream press while maintaining a rather high level of rigour in the stories it covers. Which is why I was disappointed with a recent segment on traditional medicine in Brazil.
A story on traditional medicine in Brazil would be as interesting as any other story if that’s what it was actually what it was about but, in keeping with certain journalistic traditions, a spin had to be worked in: “modern medicine is discovering there’s much to learn from traditional healers in Brazil”. It definitely included modern medicine practitioners learning about traditional medicines from local practitioners but, a more interesting question I think would have been should modern medicine be learning from traditional healers in Brazil? In the sense that doctors should be aware of potential other substances their patients might be taking, I think they should. But learning for the purpose of treatment makes me way less comfortable.
I want to make clear here that there is nothing inherently wrong about naturopathy, which is what this traditional medicine is. Many modern drugs come from or are based on natural substances. The problem is introduced when there is no rigour in how they are used. They need to be tested like any other treatment and supported proportionally with how effective they are–both in terms of actual AND placebo effects.
But my point is that like Dispatches, which is usually a rigourously researched show, many people completely within their faculties give these kinds of alternative or traditional medicines a free pass. People who wouldn’t go to a fortune teller for financial advice will go to a homeopath for medical advice. Or people who wouldn’t buy into an internet get rich quick scheme will buy naturopathic products from a website somewhere in California because they heard somewhere that the product will make them better.
Again, traditional medicines are far from devoid in medical potential. They are derived from a thorough, first hand knowledge of the natural environment. The problem is that somethings are effective and some aren’t. A case in point is echinacea which is believed to both prevent and treat colds and has been used by indigenous people probably for thousands of years. There is no absolutely no evidence from well-designed trials that it works despite the fact that, because it remains so popular, it is constantly being tested. In fact, another study just came out today in the New England Journal of Medicine reiterating that echinacea has no effect on colds. Yet, somehow, echinacea remains a billion dollar industry.
Well, my post on the Dispatches story turned into a post on traditional medicines. Oops. I still love you Dispatches.