Today I read this article by Thomas Freedman in this month's Atlantic. It's pretty decent, but can summarized much more easily: Alternative medicine, despite its consistent failure to establish its worth in placebo-controlled, double blind studies, is gaining acceptance in medicine because of the failure of the traditional treatment model for many of today's prosperity-driven chronic illnesses. In other words, many people seem to (or at least think they do) benefit more from a genuine interaction with a caring practitioner who discusses the person's overall well-being, than from a drug that tests marginally better than a placebo, even when the ultimate treatment is completely useless. There are, of course, a number of reasons this might be true, but the article focusses on the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, and how the difference in that relationship between alternative practitioners and traditional doctors is dramatic.
Well, then, my reactions! The two articles have some common threads. First, when it comes to lots of common medical problems (as well as other, less common ones), traditional medicine is a bit of a disaster. People get anxious, have aches and pains, digestive problems, skin diseases, and we really don't understand the mechanisms behind either their waxing or waning. We treat them with drugs or other interventions—at great cost—but on the whole, after all the money we spend, we see only modest improvements in many of these conditions, if any, and again, we have little understanding of how or why these improvements happen. M., the woman with the insatiable itch in Gawande's article, is an outlier, but her story is instructive all the same.
Yeah, I know, I've said all that before. Along those lines, though, the Atlantic article really misses the sense of bewilderment that its New Yorker counterpart captures brilliantly. It's easy for us to blame poor diet and lack of exercise for our medical problems, as Freedman does on multiple occasions. But what happens when we eat right, exercise often, and still feel terrible? In this respect, alternative medicine sometimes shares traditional medicine's liability in its incessant search for an intervention or cure that isn't always there.
Of course, that reaction is based largely in personal experience as well, so take it or leave it. A better diet, exercise, and a supportive doctor of any kind probably would help a lot of people with their medical woes, but it sure didn't help me. Those who know me well know I'm a big proponent of mindfulness meditation—which Freedman brushes over and Gawande doesn't mention—not as a cure for illness but as a different approach altogether, and one that has a solid empirical backing. A brief web of science search reveals hundreds of studies, reviews and meta-analyses (oo fancy) showing support for mindfulness-based interventions in controlled studies.
Now interestingly I couldn't find any studies on mindfulness that were double-blind, even though in principle, they could be, since the practice of mindfulness doesn't really depend on interacting with a doctor, or interacting with anyone. Traditionally it's taught and practiced with a doctor, or meditation guide, and often with a group of people, but in my case it has been effective—dramatically so—without any outside help at all, but merely from reading. So how bout it medical community