Sean Sullivan/the Gauntlet

Keep pseudo and science separate

Complementary and alternative therapies should not be called medicine

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For students interested in a career in research or medicine, securing a summer position in a research lab provides invaluable experience. By obtaining a studentship from an organization like Alberta Innovates Health Solutions or the University of Calgary’s Program for Undergraduate Research Experience, undergraduates can spend the summer months conducting research in world-class labs. 

The Branch Out Neurological Foundation, a brand new research-focused charity, recently started offering summer funding to students interested in pursuing research into treating neurological diseases through “less commonly explored treatment options such as complementary and alternative medicine.” As an undergraduate researcher myself and as a skeptic, I have some problems with this.

There is no universal definition of complementary and alternative medicine. Most attempts at definitions typically resemble either “treatments not currently considered part of conventional medicine” or “treatments not proven to be effective by scientific methods.” The first definition is usually employed by those who advocate CAM and it fails to address the actual efficacy of CAM methods. The second is the more apt of the two and is more useful in considering issues of public health. 

Consider the following examples of CAM practices. Chiropractic, perhaps the most popular member of the CAM family, is sorely lacking scientific evidence of its efficacy in treating any medical condition. Naturopathy operates on the assumption of the existence of ‘vital energy,’ which is purported to guide all bodily processes. This ideology is directly in conflict with that of science-based medicine. Homeopathy does not perform significantly better than a placebo in some clinical trials. Furthermore, its proposed mechanism of action, which assumes ‘like cures like,’ is physically impossible. Despite all of this, these therapies are prevalent throughout Canada and the rest of the world. A Fraser Institute study estimated that Canadians spent $7.8 billion on alternative medicine in the latter half of 2005 and the first half of 2006.

But if the problem with alternative therapies is that they’re not supported by the evidence, then isn’t Branch Out actually addressing the problem? Branch Out supports research into novel treatments of neurological disease, which is something I absolutely promote. Trying to find new approaches is something we should always encourage. What I disagree with is how they’re choosing to label their efforts. Why does Branch Out call the research they support ‘alternative’?

This past summer, Branch Out paid for undergraduates to investigate using music therapy to help Parkinson’s patients improve movement and cognition, the potential use of a turmeric-derived chemical in treating the neuropathology associated with diabetes, how an 
exercise regimen can contribute to physical and mental health in patients with low-grade brain cancer and a handful of other projects. These are all interesting lines of study and if they yield promising results, the approaches can be further examined and possibly put into practice. If the results do not support these strategies, then we’ll learn that these are not good ways to treat neurological disorders. 

That is how evidence-based medicine works. This is not alternative medical research — it is medical research. The point at which we should consider treatment approaches crossing into the domain of CAM is when they’re put into practice without convincing evidence to support them.

My contention with Branch Out’s labelling is that they are associating the research they fund — real science — with the term “alternative medicine.” By adopting that unfortunate label they are contributing to an illusion of legitimacy of the earlier-mentioned quackery — chiropractory, naturopathy, homeopathy, etc. This makes the exploitation of the public easier for alternative medicine providers and it makes it harder for the misinformed public to pick up on the absurdity of alternative medicine. 

Many do not understand that alternative therapies have insufficient or very little scientific support and therefore no rational basis. Taken in by alternative medicine’s empty promises, patients may choose to refuse conventional treatment and instead turn to more ‘natural’ options based on pseudoscience. The labelling Branch Out employs feeds into the much larger problem of the lack of education and public awareness of what alternative medicine actually is. 

The Branch Out Neurological Foundation has noble intentions and is funding important scientific work. However, the way Branch Out chooses to present itself contributes to widespread misinformation of complementary and alternative medicine, which can be harmful to public health. Science is science. Alternative medicine is nonsense and should be treated as such.