Alternative Medicine Treatments: The Big Unknown

[ By on December 09, 2016 ]

Imagine you are a cancer patient undergoing traditional cancer treatment, which is taking a toll on your quality of life. Your doctor informs you that there are alternative treatment options, such as massage therapy, yoga, and acupuncture, that you can combine with your cancer treatment to alleviate the negative side effects and symptoms you are experiencing. If you think you would jump at that opportunity, you would find yourself among 65 percent of diagnosed cancer patients who have used these type of “complementary approaches,” according to one study ( You might be thinking, “these methods seem relatively harmless and pose only a potential benefit, so why not?” Although this situation may seem clear cut, there is more to this issue than meets the eye.

Complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments represent a field of healthcare outside of traditional Western medicine. Complementary treatments are used along with conventional medicinal treatments, while alternative therapies are used in place of traditional treatment. These treatments can include natural products, yoga, meditation, and homeopathy. The use of such methods and products raise important scientific and ethical questions.

One major issue with CAM is scientific uncertainty. As a relatively new field, there has been little research conducted or scientific evidence to prove the benefits of such treatments. Additionally, as CAM is focused on “holism,” a process that claims to value the whole patient, it can be harder to measure and evaluate evidence of effectiveness in traditional scientific ways. With this concern in mind, can doctors truly prescribe an effective and ethical treatment plan with CAM for patients?

This also raises the issue of informed consent and patient autonomy. If CAM practices are relatively new to the Western public, how can we truly be sure that patients understand the mechanism at play? With little scientific backing for treatments, such as homeopathy, can patients truly give informed consent? This can also tie to the use of placebo treatments, which can be considered an alternative form of medicine and require a lack of patient understanding in order to be effective. Utilitarianism would allow this type of lying for the maximum possible happiness, but can we say that these treatments are really effective?

And although true use of alternative medicine treatment is uncommon, what is a doctor’s obligation in treating a patient who chooses to forego traditional treatment in favor of an unproven alternative method? Does the doctor have an obligation, according to Kantian ethics, to keep the patient alive or pursue what they believe is the most effective treatment plan? Or does the patient’s bodily autonomy take priority?

I hope that in considering these issues we can better understand the limitations of science and question what we consider as accepted practice in the field of medicine.

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