Why Can't We All Just Get Along?
As far as doctors go, I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to alternative therapies. Other doctors consider me somewhat left-wing in my practices and policies although in a generally right-wing profession such as medicine I guess that really doesn't say much. I regularly recommend that my patients try chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture, or naturopathic medicine. I am a huge breastfeeding advocate, and support mothers who can breastfeed their babies beyond infancy. I am very anti-circumcision. I appreciate the benefits of such 'crunchy' parenting beliefs as co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and attachment parenting in general.
So because I know few people in real life who think the way I do (not to mention the very real problem of not really having the time to make any friends in the city I've been living in since starting residency), I often rely on the internet for information and to find people with common interests. In particular, I am a fan of message boards. One such message board that I won't mention (it's not my intent to start a war) seemed to be exactly what I was looking for-- there were reviews of cloth diapers, vegetarian and vegan recipes, information on natural health and healing and all kind of great information probably considered 'off the beaten path'. Just one problem.
They hated me.
Well, maybe it wasn't 'me' they hated. After all, I hadn't contributed anything at that point. It was more a matter of hating what I (voluntarily or not) represent. I first realized this when I ventured into a forum on vaccination. Vaccines weren't something I had spent much time thinking about through my medical training-- in emergency medicine, the only vaccine that had a role in the emergency room was the Td booster, which we offered to everyone who came in requiring sutures who hadn't received the vaccine in the past 10 years. I didn't really concern myself with people who refused it-- just explained the indication and documented that it was offered and declined.
In family medicine, however, they became more routine. But still, I hadn't thought much about them. They were routinely given at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months. Only once did a patient take me up on my quick "do you have any questions or concerns about the vaccinations scheduled for today?". He was concerned about the mercury in vaccines. I assured him that vaccines in Canada no longer contained thimerosal with the exception of the flu shot, and he was happy with that. At his next visit, the same father asked about the use of formaldehyde in vaccines. I told him that I didn't know, but that I'd be happy to look into it for him. We delayed his son's vaccinations that day.
The 'Vaccination' forum would have been much more appropriately named the 'Anti-Vaccination' forum. A few clicks was all it took to realize that the nature of the forum went far beyond having evaluated the literature and deciding that the risks of vaccination outweighed the risks of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases. That, I can respect. But instead these people have decided that the entire medical profession is, at best, a bunch of ignorant and obedient pharma shills. At worst, we are voluntary conspirators pushing dangerous interventions on people to benefit our own pockets.
I have to admit that when it comes to something as seemingly benign and beneficial as vaccination, we're probably not as critical as we should be. We know what we've been taught-- and that is that vaccines have been proven safe and effective, that adverse effects are rare, and that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks. It's not 'dogma', it's not a belief system, it's simply presented in the same way as every other one of a million other pieces of medical information that we, as physicians, are expected to know. And as with anything else, we should be prepared to discuss it intelligently with our patients rather than simply shutting down at the suggestion that there may be more to it.
But the anti-medical sentiment runs far deeper than the vaccination forum. Among the opinions presented as fact are:
- Well baby visits are simply an opportunity to push vaccinations and berate parents who choose not to vaccinate.
- Well baby visits exist solely for the financial benefit of physicians
- Physicians receive kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies for prescribing their products
- Physicians make up statistics to coerce patients to agree to certain interventions
- Physicians are "unethical liars telling women rubbish to suit their own purposes" in regards to childbirth
- Obstetricians are "knife-wielding surgeons who are bound and determined to slice you open no matter what your wishes"
But it's a sentiment that goes both ways. Allopathic medicine is slow to accept, let alone endorse, many branches of 'alternative' or 'complementary' medicine. It took years for acupuncture to finally be endorsed by the medical community in spite of years of evidence in support of its benefits. Recently, when my family medicine group discussed a case where a woman came into my colleagues office asking about her opinion on the naturopathic remedies that had cured her condition, my colleague had to admit that she had no idea what to say or how to handle the situation. I suggested having a naturopath come in to speak to our group about some of the principles of naturopathic medicine and alternative healing-- it's something I've always wanted to learn more about and clearly it was an area of weakness for my colleagues as well. Instead my suggestion was met with uncomfortable silence. Instead it was decided by the group that we'll be having an MD give us a talk on alternative medicine. Um... right. Talk about defeating the purpose.
The attitude that practitioners of alternative medicine have against physicians and the attitude that physicians have towards much of alternative medicine is only hurting the patient in the long run. A recent study showed that 63% of patients over the age of 50 were using some form of complementary or alternative medicine, and nearly 70% of these had not discussed it with their doctor. Many of these women on the anti-vaccination board were advising each other to lie when asked if their child was up to date on their vaccinations to avoid questioning and condemnation. That can't be good for anyone.
Traditional allopathic medicine has much to learn from the world of naturopathic and alternative therapies-- we should be keeping an open mind and ensuring that we have (at minimum) a basic knowledge of the therapies and techniques available. Alternative medicine would gain more acceptance by traditional medicine by shelving the adversarial attitude and through more rigorous scientific testing of their therapies.
It's too bad that each side has to feel so darned threatened by the other.