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The News

U.S. health care workers, especially doctors and nurses, use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) far more than do workers in other fields, according to a new study. CAM includes diverse therapies outside the realm of conventional medicine. Overall, 76 percent of health care workers report CAM usage, compared with 63 percent of the general working population.

Sources:

  • Story: Doctors, nurses often use holistic medicine for themselves [MedicalXpress]
  • Study: Johnson PF, et al. Personal use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by US healthcare workers. Health Serv Res online, 2011.

My Opinion

Let’s take a look at the study a little more closely as we continue.

First, some defining. Although so-called alternative medicine is thought to encompass more scientifically verified practices, such as meditation (for relaxation), special diets (like vegetarianism), and exercise, it also encompasses the scientifically unfounded therapies such as homeopathy, acupuncture, and chelation. I have no problem with the few therapies that have been scientifically proven to have real health benefits. What I will be concerned with are the therapies that are not founded on the evidence and show no evidence for efficacy. Therefore, when I refer to “alternative medicines”, “therapies”, or CAM, I will be referring to the scientifically unproven practices, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, and homeopathy. With that out of the way, let’s proceed.

Even with these high percentages of health care workers using alternative therapies, the case may be made that the health care workers are still using therapies that science can get behind. But the study says that even excluding slightly more grounded therapies like diet and exercise, 41 percent of health care workers still use these bunk therapies on themselves.

One possibility for the prevalence of these “complementary and alternative medicines” (CAM), is that health care workers are being fooled by the exact same effect that the general public is fooled by, the placebo effect. I will consider the placebo effect in this analysis because that is what the science says is happening. These alternative therapies do no outperform placebo, therefore placebo is the only mode of action.

The study says:

The most commonly reported condition for CAM self-treatment
was anxiety.

Which is a non-specific ailment that can plausibly be treated by the placebo effects that these fake therapies provide. Anxiety, like “general wellness” mentioned below, is just vague enough a term for the power of placebo to effect your health in some way, but not in the way that the therapies claim.

The study further says,

The most common reason given for CAM use was general wellness.

Which is another difficult to define parameter that could be affected by placebo. If “general wellness” includes everything from physical health to emotional health, a placebo effect could easily come into play somewhere. Just the thought of using a “natural” or “alternative” product may increase psychological “general wellness”, which could then lead to more CAM use, without regard for its non-existent health benefits.

As one bright spot, the data shows that more ridiculous therapies, such as “energy therapy” and alternative medical systems like homeopathy, are hardly used at all, with only 2.6% and 1.5% of health care workers using them, respectively.

Conclusions

It may be hard for you to talk my word for it, as these people are doctors and nurses, and should know a thing or two about health, right? You would think so. But let’s not rely on the logical fallacy of the argument from authority. Just because these people are doctors and nurses does not mean that everything that they use is proven to work. We need a system that can decide these cases of self-administered placebo; that’s why we have objective science.

This study is another instance that shows that an education in something intellectual and scientific like medicine does not imply an education in critical thinking or healthy skepticism. If doctors and nurses are more likely than the general working population to use therapies on themselves that do nothing for their health, that should be a very clear message for the need for more critical thinking in medical science.