Ask the doctor: Alternative medicine: the inside scoop

Published: December, 2012

Q. What do doctors think of alternative medicine?

A. Some doctors dismiss all types of alternative medicine as hocus-pocus. That's not my view. I believe that any treatment—whether "alternative" or "conventional"—needs to be tested by the scientific method and shown to improve health before it can be recommended. There are more "alternative" therapies than "conventional" therapies that remain untested. Fortunately, in the past 20 years the National Institutes of Health and many academic centers—including Harvard Medical School—have begun to seriously put "alternative" therapies to the test. Some are flunking out, and some are passing the test. For example, in the past two years the New England Journal of Medicine has published two careful studies showing the benefit of an alternative therapy—tai chi—in two very different illnesses, fibromyalgia and Parkinson's disease. The journal also published several studies showing that widely used conventional therapies offered no benefit and even caused harm. An example is the addition of a drug called clopidogrel to aspirin in patients with a certain type of stroke. What matters is not whether a treatment is "alternative" or "conventional." What matters is whether it has been tested and shown to improve health.

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