CAM research: who are we trying to convince?

Like many others, I was quite surprised to hear this week that the Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Pharmacy, Dr. Heather Boon, was organizing an RCT evaluating homeopathy in the treatment of ADHD. I don’t need to include any links explaining why homeopathy is complete quackery, simple google it. Dr. Boon lectured my medical school class numerous times over my four years at the University of Toronto; she was an excellent teacher and was reasonably skeptical regarding the limited evidence within the field of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Dr. Boon wrote last fall that universities are the best places to get “answers on integrative medicine”. While this is technically true, it doesn’t mean that time and money should actually be spent by academic researchers on disproving every claim regarding natural or homeopathic remedies. Before I could get this post up, Dr. Mario Elia wrote an excellent rebuttal arguing that CAM research is like throwing good money down the well. Dr. Elia explains that with limited funding for research, the scientific community should really focus on treatments that have some shred of scientific plausibility.

There is one other point I wanted to make in arguing that this type of research is a waste of time and money. Whose practice is going to change based on the outcome of this study, or of studies of other, (slightly) more scientifically plausible, natural remedies? Those in the medical community are in no way going to believe a positive outcome, particularly for anything with the word “homeopath” associated with it. And those who peddle this nonsense, and most of those who already believe in it, are not going to change their minds regardless of how well an RCT is run. Homeopaths make money selling their magic water, and will find some kind of excuse to ignore any negative studies. And some (or most) of their customers have this psychology of distrust of the medical community, and their conspiracy-type thinking will not be swayed by evidence that goes contrary to their fixed beliefs (similar to anti-vaxxers).

If a CAM remedy is shown to have some modest benefit for a disease or symptom, then great; that “alternative medicine” will forever be known as simply “medicine” and will have uptake within the world of healthcare.  But I am already dreading the first university-sponsored positive study regarding anything outlandish (like natural herbs to treat cancer, or again, anything homeopathic). Because here is what will happen: backlash from the medical community will expose how and why the results are invalid. And the backlash to the backlash from those who practice and preach CAM will further entrench their fixed beliefs. And in an attempt to take one step forward, we will have taken two steps back.

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