At the Skeptics’ conference we were treated to one official’s view of the status of scientific medicine relative to alternative treatment systems and beliefs. This presentation reinforced many of our fears that modern medicine is truly the victim of its own success. Now that so many of us live to old age, and find that pharmaceuticals and surgery can do little to prevent inevitable decline, we are encouraged to turn to away from “Western orthodoxy” towards “alternative” systems of other, more “spiritual and “holistic cultures”.

Although these treatment systems have been remarkably unsuccessful in delivering health and longevity to their own people, it seems that when added on to “Western orthodoxy” they can deliver the health, beauty, and sexual vitality which we obviously deserve — and which Mrs Shipley so stubbornly refuses to give us. Even if you want your cultural shamans, now it seems that the RHAs are ready to deliver. Next time I am admitted, I plan to demand that my bed is showered with shamrocks and that I consult my personal leprechaun.

There is one exception to this widespread belief in the ability of ancient remedies to cure our nagging pains with herbs, needles and beads. I am sure that I shall never see Any naturopathic dentistry. (If P.J. O’Rorke didn’t say that, he should have.)

Many in the audience must have wondered where the pressure for medicine to abandon its self-confidence is coming from. When someone is run over by a bus you will not hear them cry “Take me to my naturopath!”

Of course not, they want the full orthodox treatment from the full western works.

My own experience in the world of business is that some pharmacists are pushing these ancient barrows for all they are worth. They fear deregulation and so are working hard to find new markets. It is no accident that their shelves are beginning to burst with the ministrations of homeopathy, aromatherapy, and any other New Age magic they can lay their healing hands on.

Many of them believe that the key to reforming the health system is to provide a network of “wellness centres” in which “well informed” people, rather than your “hidebound doctors”, will direct people to the range of healers in the network, who will then encourage customers to explore their own “wellness”. If they should be genuinely sick, then they can experiment with a wide and diverse range of health systems from around the ancient world, and which happen to have been distilled into convenient little bottles on the pharmacists’ shelves.

One of the obvious advantages of “wellness centres” is that they dramatically increase the size of the market. Instead of being restricted to the sick, these “wellness centres” can target the millions of worried-well suffering from advanced Woody Allen Syndrome and similar incurable complaints.

It’s good thinking, and it’s probable that many others have identified the same opportunity. No doubt they are pressuring the RHAs to bring all these alternative treatments into the public health system so as to break the medical profession’s monopoly over treatment and to provide greater consumer choice. A popular argument is that the public health system would then provide the funds needed to properly test these alternative treatments — something which the conspiring monopolistic drug companies will presently not allow.

My problem is that if someone is going to be treated using my taxpayers’ money then I demand some accountability — which, at the very least, means that there should be some evidence that the treatment works, or that it is being tested within a regime in which evidence will finally prevail over belief.

On the other hand if an insurance company is prepared to fund acupuncture and the like, that is a private matter between the insured and the insurer, and nothing to do with me. So it seems that if we are going to have such a free-for-all in medical care then, rather than drawing all these alternative practises into the public system, the whole system would have to be privatised.

But this raises another set of dilemmas. Health care is tricky in that it often ends in death — as the Prime Minister so foolishly pointed out on television. So when the aromatherapist fails to cure your nearest-and-dearest’s cancer, who sues whom? And how do we regulate the market to control the charlatans? Are we destined to end up with a private health system matched in size and expenditure by an army of civil servants, lawyers and TV producers all determined to give the survivors a “fair go”?

While the enthusiasts for alternative medicine hold up the drug companies as their enemies, these research based organisations are finding that an ever-expanding web of regulations and open ended-liabilities are making it increasingly difficult to bring new drugs to the market. When they see how easy it is to bottle up diluted-water or mandrake oil, and charge the same price as FHA registered pharmaceuticals, their shareholders will demand that they join this immensely profitable game.

Therefore I suspect that where the pharmacists lead, the pharmaceutical companies will not be far behind. And if the presentation to the Skeptics conference is anything to go by, new-age health administrators seem only too ready to open the door — or even to lead the charge.

Depressing isn’t it.

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