Stephen Ginn on complementary therapy and disenfranchisement

I went to a debate on complementary medicine recently, hosted by the KCL Social Medicine Society. Despite being held on Guy’s Hospital Campus, a supposed stronghold of conventional medicine, the lecture theatre was awash with complementary therapists and when the pre-debate votes were taken the numbers were two to one against critics -like me – of complementary practice. The speeches for and against the motion, although equally disadvantaged by the lack of anticipated audiovisuals, were, by and large, as I had expected, as they rehearsed well known arguments on medical evidence and the primacy of double blind randomised control trials. What I hadn’t been expecting was the degree of tension between the two viewpoints; for instance several audience members felt regularly moved to heckle Simon Singh, co-author of Trick or Treatment – a paean to evidence based medicine, not content that he is already subject to a libel lawsuit from the British Chiropractic Association.

After the addresses, relations deteriorated further when participation was invited from the floor. It wasn’t just that some of the points made were verbose and closer to statements than actual questions, the vehemence of the complementary therapy supporters disagreement with a conventional medical approach was striking. It was almost as if they felt that those opposing their view not only disagreed with them, but did so malignly with murderous intent. Of course the sample of people I saw was self-selecting, but why would people feel so strongly that conventional medicine, and by extension doctors, wished them ill?

A partial answer as to the schism between complimentary and conventional medicine is provided by Bad Science guru Ben Goldacre, who in his recent book lists reasons why “clever people believe stupid things.” His argument is psychologically based: people are biased; see patterns where there is only random noise; see causal relations where there are none and overvalue and seek out confirmatory information. From these beans a beanstalk grows all the way up to Matthias Rath.

I don’t doubt Goldacre’s assessment, but it cannot wholly account for the hostility which I witnessed. The supporters of complementary medicine at the debate seemed to feel entirely disenfranchised by conventional medicine, and alienated even from cordial debate. The root of this emotional intensity may be that although the majority of people tolerate the NHS’s faults and are basically satisfied with the service they receive, some people’s experience of conventional medicine can be poor. Consider the people who feel unheeded by their doctor who can only allot them seven minutes, or those upset and resentful about their parent who died from the effects of chemotherapy; or those suffering from medicine side effects or whose operations lead to complications. For some, it won’t just be the message, but the messenger too: doctors nearly all come from a privileged swathe of society and our relative erudition and advantage will make some patients, whose achievements may on the face of it seem more humble, feel unpleasantly diffident. Other factors against doctors are wired in from our training. Despite modern efforts, it all too rarely leads us to heed that a patient’s experience of receiving their healthcare can be even more important than the healthcare itself and we still tend to see people in terms of aggregations of symptoms, ignoring that most of our patients come to see us for reasons only partially related to an identifiable disorder. Although improvements have been made and medical schools have pulled up their socks, the MRCPsych and other membership exams give pitiful consideration to the cultural forces behind poor health. Overall, and especially post graduation, our manner with our patients and our ability to help them in any way beyond a narrow biomedical confine it is not treated as central to what we do but rather something we are expected to pick up as we go along.

Could complementary therapy for its staunch adherents be then one in the eye to all the people like doctors who ‘think they’re clever’ and fail to adequately assess or understand patient difficulties? Is it an inevitable outcome as the result of some people wishing for a more equal partnership for healing? For the disenfranchised, complementary medicine may be something that they can own, and a haven from the people whose education unfortunately makes them seem intimidating and unapproachable.

Stephen Ginn is a psychiatrist in training working in London. He writes the blog Frontier Psychiatrist.