Complementary or alternative medicine is a controversial topic. On the one hand, it is extremely popular for people who feel that they need more options for their healthcare, or that the traditional medical system has failed them. On the other, most complementary medicines have, at best, very limited evidence that they do anything for your health at all.
As Tim Minchin infamously said: “ Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”
When it comes to diseases where modern medicine fails, complementary medicine is understandable. If you’ve got, say, a chronic condition that responds poorly to treatment like myalgic encephalomyelitis, and there’s not really much doctors can do for you, why not try another option?
It’s a persuasive argument.
But a new study has shown exactly why not. Because complementary medicine may not always be actively harmful. But it still kills.
The study was actually a really interesting piece of work. The researchers took an enormous database of people — 2 million individuals, which is a lot — who had cancer over a 20-year period. They identified everyone who they could confirm had used alternative medicine, and compared them to a matched sample of people who had conventional cancer treatment.
What they found was that, when you matched cancer patients on a range of factors — in epidemiological terms this is known as controlling for confounders — people who had used complementary medicines were much worse off. Not only did they have a lower chance of surviving at 5-years, they were twice as likely to die. And it wasn’t just a large relative risk increase — less than 70% of people who used complementary medicines were alive at 7 years into the study, compared with more than 80% of the conventional medicine users.
If complementary medicine was a drug, it would be banned.
But, as I’ve said, most complementary medicines are pretty safe. So what’s killing all these people?
The first thing to recognize here is that this study was observational. What this means is that it is difficult to figure out what is causing the results that the researchers observed. They controlled for confounding variables — things that might have been causing the result — but even then, it is impossible to control for everything.
Except, the researchers had a theory. They thought that complementary medicine might be killing people not because it was itself dangerous, but because it caused people to delay or refuse conventional treatment.
And that’s exactly what they found.
People who used complementary medicines were much more likely to refuse treatment like surgery, chemotherapy, and the like, compared to the control group. And when the researchers controlled for this, they found that the association between complementary medicine and risk of death disappeared.
In less epidemiological terms, that means that people who used complementary medicines were more likely to refuse treatment and that was what caused them to die more.
Which brings us back to the problem: complementary medicine kills. People who use complementary medicine are more likely to refuse effective treatment, and there have been numerous studies demonstrating that this is actually encouraged by many complementary practitioners.
It’s also worth noting what this study didn’t find: any evidence at all that complementary medicine is helpful for cancer. Previous research has shown that most people who use complementary medicines think that it will help, and fully 1/3 think that it will cure their disease. But this just isn’t the case.
The evidence is clear. Complementary medicine doesn’t do anything to treat or cure cancer.
And that is, perhaps, the saddest part of this whole story. Because this research wasn’t just done on any kinds of cancer. The researchers specifically picked types of cancer that were fully treatable. With treatment, most people survived — you can see it in the graph above. If the people who chose complementary medicine had not been scammed by charlatans, they would almost certainly not have died.
As I’ve said, there are places where complementary medicine is merely a waste of time. If you have a chronic disease that you can’t treat any other way, go for it. You might waste a few dollars, but that’s not a life-destroying decision.
Just don’t ignore effective, conventional treatments. If you’ve got cancer, see a doctor, ideally an oncologist, for your treatment.
The evidence shows that people who don’t, die.