Opinion: Alternative healing

POSTED: 04/15/14 1:05 AM

There is plenty to be said against regular medical treatment, especially where medication and its side-effects are concerned. Equally, there is a lot to be said against alternative healing. There are plenty of these treatments around that firmly fit into the nonsense-category. But not everything is what it seems. Not all traditional medicine is bull, and the same is true for alternative medicine – though some aficionados already balk at the notion that their ways are considered “alternative.”

All this is no more than semantics of course. Alternative is the label for medical treatment that does not fall in the category of what is generally accepted as regular medical treatment. The enlightened ones who want to argue this point are welcome, but we prefer not to waste our time on it.

Besides, there is some good news for alternative healers. A report from ZonMw, a Dutch research organization, says that doctors working in regular healthcare ought to prescribe more often alternative treatments like acupuncture, relax-therapy and music therapy.

One would expect that ZonMw is some obscure club that promotes alternative medical treatment, but this is not the case. On its website, the organization describes itself as follows: “It is ZonMw’s goal to ensure that healthy people stay that way for as long as possible, that ill people recover as quickly and completely as possible and that people who require care and nursing receive the highest standard of services. To achieve this, we need to focus on prevention: on stopping people from becoming ill. And we need good health care for people who nevertheless fall ill.

The question ZonMw faces is how to improve disease prevention and health care. One thing is clear: you need a lot of knowledge, and therefore a lot of research. And it is important that people actually use that knowledge. With this in mind, ZonMw funds and promotes research, development and implementation.”

With that out of the way, how do we have to value such a recommendation? According to the daily newspaper Trouw that wrote about the issue, several doctors and hospital managers have contributed to the report. They say that alternative care, of which the effectiveness has been proven, must be applied much more frequent by doctors. Chiropractors are for instance considered to provide effective treatment (of joints) and food supplements are also considered useful in the report.

The doctors who cooperated with the report are going to establish a research group that has to chart how many people in the Netherlands are using alternative healing and to provide information about the usefulness of it. The patient federation NCPF will support the research group. “Our objective is to gain insight in what is being offered in care institutions and what their effectiveness is,” the chairman of the research group told Trouw.

Hans Jeekel, a professor in surgery has proposed that healthcare insurers pay for alternative care with proven effectiveness. “Especially because this is about relatively cheap alternatives that also make it possible to save on other treatments,” he says.

For a lot of alternative treatments there is no proof that they actually work, but that does not mean that patients do not benefit from them. There is for instance no proof for the homeopathic principle of endlessly diluting the active substance in a homeopathic product (without loss of effectiveness). But even as long as that evidence is lacking, Jeekel is prepared to give homeopathy a chance.

Another example of effective alternative treatment is music therapy. According to Jeekel there are indications that patients remain more relaxed when they hear music during surgery. Not only that, other functions of the body, like the immune system and the oxygen content of the blood, also do better. This way patients need fewer painkillers and they are able to go back home sooner.

The debate between proponents and opponents of alternative treatments is often fierce. Jeekel has sensed a change though. Among specialists the atmosphere is changing, he says. “I got my insight after I retired as a doctor. I hope that my younger colleagues will get there sooner.”

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