Let's face it - we live in a health conscious society.
Not a day passes without being inundated with what we should or should not be doing when it comes to taking better care of ourselves and preventing illness. Yet with so many articles, television programs, radio newscasts and advertisements, how do we know what to choose or to avoid in order to maximize our health?
The answer isn't simple. In fact, short of a medical degree, one probably needs a PhD in medical consumerism (only kidding – I'm not aware of such a degree) to sort through what appears to be a never-ending glut of medical information.
During an interview this past summer with Steven Strauss, MD, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health, we discussed this issue at length. Dr. Strauss is leading the federal government's effort to investigate integrative medicine and complementary approaches that make sense. He pointed out that our nation's present healthcare situation is extraordinarily unique.
Explaining that in the past scientists were responsible for testing approaches before giving the public a nod of approval, he proceeded to discuss the enormous challenge of testing approaches that have already attained enormous popularity despite the lack of scientific validity. Based upon our discussions, I'm convinced the NIH is facing a formidable challenge and is approaching it diligently from a perspective developed to ensure the safety of our society.
Unfortunately, the NIH effort does not match the incredible collective power of American consumers. Countless alternative approaches have already gained widespread use despite lack of adequate testing. Extensive claims tainted with phrases reeking with pseudo-science appear convincing. Successful billion dollar industries have emerged on marketing hype alone. Beyond money poorly spent, these approaches are far from innocuous. Serious side effects and drug interactions occur more commonly than one might imagine. We read about them everyday. Yet the trend for the quick fix in the form of an anti-aging remedy, a sexually-boosting elixir, or the anxiety buster continues to grow exponentially.
Where does this leave us in an age of information bombardment? When public healthcare claims affecting millions of people are available on hundreds of millions of web pages throughout the internet each day, how can we become better consumers?
While I would not venture to suggest I have all the answers, the following 5 suggestions just might help our nation make a considerable dent in a problem that is already out of control.
- Develop integrative medicine departments in hospitals nationwide. By "integrative," I'm referring to a rational blend of conventional and complementary approaches. Throwing the baby out with the bath water (using purely alternative approaches rather than conventional medical strategies) isn’t in anyone’s best interest.
- Create journals with interdisciplinary editorial boards willing to serve as forums for complementary and integrative medicine research. The closed-door policies of established journals which refuse to review such research is thwarting progress in this arena. One established journal fired it’s editor after publishing several research articles in this realm.
- Encourage manufacturers to fund independent research studies of their products. It's time we realized that federal funds and grants are not available to do so. While you might consider this a break from tradition or conflict of interest, such is not the case. We would not have Prozac, the latest antibiotic, blood pressure medication, or the MRI scanner if the manufacturer did not fund it's initial research. Federal incentives could yield higher standards.
- Design a meaningful rating system for assessing complementary therapies. Why should nutrition, exercise and stress reduction (strategies for which a great deal of peer-reviewed research exists) be placed in the same category as aromatherapy, crystal therapy and ozone injections? Maintaining all interventions under one heading such as "alternative" serves no reasonable purpose. In fact, it denigrates approaches that should be made available to everyone based upon a solid foundation of research.
- Demand more accountability from the press. Medical correspondents with appropriate backgrounds boost the quality and validity of the news that reaches us. Reporting claims for an anti-aging supplement without exposing potential dangers is irresponsible. In a similar manner, while two sides of an issue always exist, it's important to maintain a balanced and informed perspective.
In conclusion, a collective societal effort is needed to ensure the quality and safety of our healthcare choices. Ultimately, however, amidst what has evolved into a quagmire, that final choice is yours. When in doubt, check with your physician. Also, don't forget ... it if sounds too good to be true, buyer beware - Mind Over Matter!
© 2000 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved