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James May – DC's Improbable Science

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Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
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James May

The term ‘evidence-based medicine’ seemed to me, when I first heard it, utterly ludicrous. It still does. What’s the alternative? Guess-work based medicine?

Quacks are fond of using cuddly words like ‘holistic’ and ‘integrative’, partly, one suspects, in an attempt to gain respectability and to disguise some of their barmier views. See, for example, Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.

Advocates of evidence-based medicine are often accused by quacks of being hard-hearted calculators who want to take the soul out of medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth in my view. But I don’t practise medicine so it seemed to me to be worth quoting two of the best definitions I know, both from people at the sharp end of medicine.

James Matthew May

James May is a general practioner in London. He is also chairman of Healthwatch, an organisation that was exposing health fraud long before the recent explosion in the ‘skeptical blogosphere’.

The following passage was written as comment (‘rapid reponse’) to an editorial in the British Medical Journal. The editorial itself was (in my view) silly and misguided (Closing the evidence gap in integrative medicine, by Hugh MacPherson, David Peters, and Catherine Zollman). It is best forgotten as soon as possible. But James May’s comment deserves to be preserved and publicised. The highlights in bold font are mine.

The use of the term ‘integrative medicine’ in your editorial seems to confuse more than clarify the problem of ‘holism’ in medicine. Complementary therapists for example often use the term ‘holistic’ to blur the boundaries between the therapies used and the practitioner’s interpersonal skills. It would be better, however, to keep these distinctions clear. Caring is different from curing. The point of RCTs is to establish how much of a treatment’s efficacy is independent of the ideas, concerns, and expectations of either the patient or the clinician. Using ‘multi-modal’ or ‘synergistic’ research methods is likely to confuse this important distinction.

‘Holism’ is not a multifaceted approach to curing, it is a mulitfaceted approach to caring. A truly holistic clinician will ‘cure sometimes, relieve often and comfort always’. Comforting may not produce a positive clinical outcome – but we should still do it. Historically speaking caring pre-existed effective medicine by millenia, but it was a principle motive for finding effective medicine. Caring therefore is not a subset of medicine, instead medicine is one of the tools used for caring. ‘Integrative medicine’ as a concept, however, blurs this boundary.

It has been wisely observed that ‘if we keep trying to measure what we value, we will end up only valuing what we can measure.’ This particular ‘evidence gap’ is therefore probably best left; filled instead by caring doctors.

Effective medicine is best measured with RCTs. Caring is not. ‘Integrative medicine’ therefore risks both damaging how we measure effective medicines (RCTs), as well as reducing caring to measurables. A better term for this might be ‘disintegrative medicine’.

Competing interests: Chairman of HealthWatch

Michael Baum

Baum is a recently-retired cancer surgeon from UCLH. As well as being s surgeon with a strong interest in scientific medicine, he has been at the forefront of thinking about supportive or spiritual care of cancer patients. His 2009 Samuel Gee lecture is available in video, Concepts of Holism in Orthodox and Alternative Medicine. It is a masterpiece. The conclusion puts his view bluntly (again the emphasis is mine).

Conclusion

Holism in medicine is an open ended and exquisitely complex understanding of human biology that over time has lead to spectacular improvements in the length and quality of life of patients with cancer. This approach encourages us to consider the transcendental as much as the cell and molecular biology of the human organism. Alternative versions of “holistic medicine” that offer claims of miracle cures for cancer by impossible dietary regimens, homeopathy or metaphysical manipulation of non-existent energy fields, are cruel and fraudulent acts that deserve to be criminalized. Such “alternative” versions of holism are arid and closed belief systems, locked in a time warp, incapable of making progress yet quick to deny progress in the field of scientific medicine.

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