IS THERE SCIENCE BEHIND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE?
A 2012 study conducted among the 184 professors of the School of Medicine of the Industrial University of Santander, which sought to know their degree of knowledge, attitude and acceptance of alternative medicine and complementary therapies (MTCI), revealed that 72% knew nothing about the subject and that 4% of those who did not participate believe that these practices have no scientific basis or are contrary to their interests.
For those who dedicate themselves to alternative medicine, it is logical for conventional doctors to reject them, since they have not had any relation with information since their training process in the biomedical model, the dominant current in most countries of the world and in which most public health systems are supported.
In the case of ancestral medicines, these are not usually studied at universities, despite millennia of history and experience, such as Ayurveda, which has its own ministry in India, or the traditional Chinese, recognized around the globe mainly by acupuncture, without the indigenous women of America. Its practice is as widespread as it is controversial.
Homeopathy, one of the most debated
Homeopathy is complemented by an old confrontation with the biomedical model, which created a division between the two practices. What homeopathy was looking for at its inception – just over 200 years ago – was to offer patients treatments that would not cause the adverse effects caused by some conventional medications, such as the supply of high doses of arsenic or mercury for the management of infections, which produced bloody diarrhea and even the death of the patient.
Although for the emerging homeopaths this did not necessarily go against what was established, for the rest of health professionals it was a challenge, causing the rupture. It is even one of the most controversial disciplines, the object of strong debates in the world, which go so far as to want its prohibition, as in the current case of Spain, where there is a government plan to end it.
In Colombia there are also strong detractors of homeopathy, especially its teaching in accredited universities. They describe it as pseudoscientific and say that it works as the placebo does in some scientifically proven cases.
An outstanding detractor is the former rector of the National University, Moises Wasserman, who has argued in the media that the history of homeopathy is distorted in favor of this practice and that some scientific studies have shown that its bases are not solid.
This discipline works with drugs that contain highly diluted substances. Wasserman refers to experiments in which it is demonstrated how homeopathics have no effects and also recalls a research published in the renowned journal Nature, which contradicted an earlier study and called into question the property of water to conserve the properties of diluted substances.
In front of the argument about the uselessness of these medicines, Eduardo Beltrán, doctor in Medicine and Surgery of the National University of Colombia and manager of the masters of Alternative Medicine of this institution, affirms that the scenarios of rejection of alternative medicine are always given by ignorance of its structure or because its contact is made from the protagonism and not from the integration of knowledge.
“The best way to analyze the therapeutic efficacy of any strategy within medicine is through its demonstration, which has several levels of evidence, ranging from the observation of isolated cases to the work of high methodological development of evidence-based medicine,” he says.
Linearity and interculturality, other factors for skepticism
One way of understanding the rejection of homeopathy is that the biomedical model conceives science from a linear model as the only possibility. “There are people with faith, underlined big, in science, and science is not something that should be defended with faith, but with results and arguments.
Therefore, those who defend science in this way cannot understand that something works when it cannot be explained from the linearity with which they learned to do things,” says Germán Benítez, a surgeon from the Javeriana University of Bogotá, who began studying traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy more than thirty years ago and has participated in the creation of certified university programs in alternative medicine in the country.
Linearity refers to the way of conceiving the effects of medicines: the more medicine, the more effect, and vice versa. The doctor explains that the way homeopathic medicines are prepared causes their molecules to disperse and they begin to behave like nanoparticles, which can have different properties to those of larger particles of the same material.
“An example is TransMillenium. If it is completely full, a person has little chance of performing some actions. If the same person goes to an hour when he is most empty, he has possibilities of different behaviors. The same happens with highly diluted substances.
They can present effects that they did not have when they were concentrated”, explains Benítez, who assures that many of the things that theoretically are not feasible were already described and supported in experiments and points out cases such as antidepressants and infections.
The confusion between popular beliefs and alternative medicine
Another factor that distances conventional physicians from alternative therapies is the specific way in which this model views health and disease, a topic currently studied by sociology, of which there is research into the different ways in which societies relate to medicine. Some systems include axes of interculturality and approaches from diverse paradigms and epistemological approaches, which are not easily accepted among health professionals.
There are also confusions of terms and concepts. To cite an example, Natalia Sofía Aldana, master in alternative medicine at the National University, says that in Colombia there are three articles published in indexed journals about alternative medicine and oncology. Perhaps the most striking is one that studies the use of the vulture or the hen in the treatment of cancer in Colombia.
“That has done us terrible harm. The disinformation in concepts in MTCI, and the lack of interdisciplinary research groups, has been one of the weaknesses of health research, since biases or disinformation are introduced in the studies. In this case, the bias is introduced by researchers because they have no knowledge of what the definitions and concepts of ICM are, nor do they know what the legal framework is.
For her, if the definitions and concepts had been taken into account, the correct title of this research would be “the use of the pimp or vulture as a popular health practice for the treatment of cancer in Colombia”.
One more case, generating confusion, is that of erroneously relating these popular practices with ancestral or naturopathic medicine. It is not the same to talk about the belief of rubbing one’s head with egg so that hair comes out, without any scientific foundation, than to bathe with elderberry to alleviate pain, an ancestral custom that does work, because when studying the components of the tree it was discovered that it has acetylsalicylic acid, perhaps the best known analgesic.
Another obstacle to alternative practices are also religious beliefs. Aldana tells how some patients in certain churches come into conflict with the treatments of ancestral medicine when they associate them with profane gods for them.
Added to this is the fear of the use of MTCI because of the evidence of patients who have gone to inadequate systems or unsuitable people and neglect therapeutic alternatives that are absolutely necessary at the time, like most conventional medicine. For example, when it is necessary to remove a tumour or receive emergency care.