Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Dangers of Alternative Medicine, Be Warned

"If water has a memory, then homeopathy is full of shit."

Pareidolius from Hell's News Stand

An astute observation any reasonable person should be able to make. Homeopathy: Shit and Sugar.

Anti Quacks Poster
Feel free to steal this poster and paste it on your blogs. Spread the word!

I have been doing volunteer work at a free clinic of the Malaccan chapter of the Tzu Chi Foundation for about two weeks now - and this, along with my increased (and increasing) workload in med school have castrated a large chunk of the free time I reserve for blogging. That's why I've been writing a lot less. Today, I met an unlikely visitor at the centre, one of our many patients who could not afford the cost of even our governmental healthcare - and what I learned from extracting his case history and from our subsequent conversation have given me a serious cause for concern.

Now, for the convenience of the narrative, we shall refer to this patient as Frank. Frank is a 61 years old American white male who have just returned from Thailand, from his work with the hill tribes there. He has had a serious illness decades ago, which I shall not name here, which rendered him unable to feel any pain in the toes of both his feet (it suffices you to know that that illness is not diabetes). Two weeks ago, he noticed that the middle toe of his left foot have become swollen and over a period of several days, the affected toenail was raised from its nailbed and fell right off. Then, a callous grew on the toe's end which eventually fell off as well, leaving behind an ulcer which got infected. His foot became swollen, red and oedematous subsequently and he reported that he could track a tenderness from that point up to his knees.

He went to a hospital in Thailand and the medicos there told him that they would have to start him on I.V. antibiotics immediately. He adamantly refused the antibiotics, and rejected every suggestion the Thai doctors gave him. He only came to our free clinic because he had an epiphany that morning while meditating.

As of now, there is evidence that the infection has invaded the rest of his body. He could feel a tenderness in the groin region - suggesting an involvement of the inguinal lymph nodes - and that the "glands" in his neck have become swollen as well (I felt them personally and am reasonably sure that they are his cervical lymph nodes). He complained of dizziness, headaches and cold, clammy hands. While he reported no fever, he did mention that he felt a little chilly. Lai Yin, my colleague who also volunteers as Tzu Chi, measured and found that he had an abnormally wide pulse pressure, indicative that Frank might very well be heading into septic shock territory. That's medispeak for "real bad shit this way comes".

The reason why he refused medical treatment when he was Thailand was because he's a strong advocate of complementary medicine - what I personally consider to be a state-sanctioned, socially upheld system of quackery. He does not like antibiotics or much of conventional medicine, for that matter. And he tried to heal his toe using Qigong. When he found that his qi (which he claims to be strong in him) wasn't up to the task, he had his fellow practitioners beam some of their qi through their hands into him. And he became aaalll better.

Nope, that's bollocks. Of course, he did not. His condition deteriorated and resultantly, there he was in the Free Clinic this morning because his chakra or guardian spirit or something told him to. I personally think that his "meditative breakthrough" can simply be translated to "Oh shit, I'm fucking sick! Time to get REAL medicine!"

I believe that if he wasn't so set in his ways in complementary medicine, he would have accepted treatment back there and then in Thailand before he ended up in his current state. He's a strong supporter of one Dr Ishak who runs a clinic offering complementary medicinal treatment in Tengkera, along with a refurbished secondary school which serves as his college for his brand of dubious healthcare. I prodded further and asked Fred if Dr Ishak's clinic offer homeopathic therapy and/or ozone therapy, both of which I know to have absolutely no scientific backings and have repeatedly failed their clinical trials. Fred happily said yes. I have no idea that such a dangerous quack is operating in my hometown, with blessings from our very own Ministry of Health!

Now, I'm not saying that there is no evidence that complementary medicine does not work. I'm simply saying that how they work is different from what their proponents suggest. The placebo effect can be particularly efficacious if a person truly believes in their miraculous properties - it makes patients feel better without actually making them better. All complementary medicine has going for it is its highly subjective anecdotal "successes" in curing illnesses which would either resolve on their own or were concurrently treated with conventional medicine. People who said that homeopathic remedies helped with their diabetes or hypertension were probably taking the usual pharmaceutical cocktail at the same time.

I wouldn't grumble half as much if these quacks remember what the word "complementary" means. Complementary medicine is meant to complement conventional medicine, not replace it. I have severe issues with the term "alternative medicine" because it suggests an air of legitimacy, that it is a viable option to the tried and true methods which were built from sturdy, scientific foundations. Let me tell you: if alternative medicine truly works, it'd be part of conventional medicine (doctors aren't conspiring to keep effective treatments from you, contrary to popular belief). But it isn't. Why? Because it kept flunking its tests. Even as a lowly 4th year medical student, I have seen too many patients who were diagnosed with very treatable diseases - early stage cancers, particularly - who went to quacks for their alternative fixes despite their physicians' warnings, only to come back a few years later with advanced diseases with nightmarish degrees of metastases and truly abysmal survival rates. I've seen firsthand how dangerous this irrational insensibility, this penchant for pseudo-medical nonsense have destroyed lives - and I've seen it far more often than the isolated "miraculous" success stories that the complementary medicine people kept blabbering to us about.

Fred currently lives in Malacca at Dr Ishak's centre and is earning no income because he believes in spending all his time and energy helping people. A few years ago, he worked for StemTech, a company which peddles a naturalistic supplement derived from the blue-green algae Aphanizomenon flos-aquae which supposedly activates adult stem cells found in bone marrow and cures like a million diseases including AIDS, kind of like those snake oil some witch doctor sell in pasar malams. I looked into it, discovering that most of StemTech's claims are unfounded (there was even a lawsuit against them which Stemtech lost) and that there is a lot of concern over its toxic and cancer-causing potential. Fred left the company because it turned to multi-level marketing (i.e. pyramid scheme), and Fred wanted to give the product away to people free-of-charge, bless his soul. I think that Fred is a really nice person, but giving out stuff that can make people sick isn't at all a very nice thing to do. Now what's that saying again? The one about roads to hell being paved with good intentions?

We cut out the dead bits from Fred's toe, stitched and dressed it up, and sent him home with some antibiotics and advice to seek hospital care if his condition deteriorates or does not improve within the next 3 days. I actually have more stories from my time at the Free Clinic but I'll save those for another time (class tomorrow, see). Think of this as a cautionary tale and try to pass it on. I sincerely hope that this will be useful to both my colleagues and non-medical readers.

k0k s3n w4i


bevE said...


Inn Shan said...

sadhu sadhu sadhu!
public view on western medicine had been tarnished lately by frequent lawsuits and death of patients under negligient doctors. It has been openly publicized.
I don't agree in this method of causing a hoo-hah in the newspaper, but i don't agree in hiding the wrong doings without any actions on negligient medical practitioners.
However, the Health Ministry must think of a way to uphold the integrity and good name of this profession.
Who on earth will leave the matter of life and death of themselves or their loved ones when the saviors are already fully discredited frequently on the paper?
That's why, more people are going for alternative medicine just to evade pill takings, needle jabbings and risk of maltreatment and misdiagnosis.

They should limit the number of direct complaints to the paper and should clarify on each claims the public do on the paper.

Anyhow good job u r doing there. I hope i can join you one day to help out. Hope there will be vacancy there.

Betsy said...

I used to go Tzu Chi also, two hours per week. And help to sort out their paper materials people donated for recycling purpose :)

- yuhhui - said...

True. My mom had a friend who has breast cancer and went for this holistic ' treatment' whereby the 'guru' massages the breast , providing some 'chi' in it and apparently it will become better. She came back with bruises on the breasts. LOL

gaL said...

Hi kok. :)

Is this Tzu Chi located at the batu berendam thr? Always pass by, but nv get the chance to actually explore/help out with that place.

And i didn't know about the existence of the free clinic also.

k0k s3n w4i said...

bevE: well done

Inn Shan: The problem is that the press do not report these quacks as often as they do of malpracticing doctors. These quacks are discredited far more often than mainstream physicians, only not publicly... while the modern healthcare system has very obviously done far more good than bad. There's always a vacancy for another pair of hands. Tell me when you have a free Sunday.

Betsy: I'm a member of the recycling committee in my college, and that's how I got to know about Tzu Chi in the first place.

yuhhui: I certainly hope she did not seek alternative treatment exclusively. It's funny how people would go to doctors for diagnoses (and trusting those diagnoses), while openly rejecting their doctors' treatments.

gaL: Yeap, that's the one. Tzu Chi has a great set of objectives, one which is very in line with my own worldview... hence my involvement. Still, I don't plan to get too involved though.

sinye said...

sigh,i seriously don't know how to stop those patients from taking "alternative medicine"..
was doing my data collection in nephro ward, aiming CKD patients and found out there's a handful of patients ended up in ESRD just because they refused to follow our conventional medicine earlier and go for the herbs that they cannot even named..

Judas said...

My eldest brother went to a bomoh when he fell severely ill, believing it was the work of a jealous frenemy. Not one, but a few bomohs actually, and got swindled off a couple hundred bucks. Symptoms included loss of appetite, rapid weight loss, vomiting inter alia.

A year later he finally relented to see a real doctor, and voila, kidney disease. I was too young to have my opinion heeded. Wish I could say I told you say, but that would be cruel.