The Cost-effectiveness of Alternative Medicine and the High Cost of Research
Despite the fact that some alternative therapies are based on anecdote or folklore, public interest continues to soar. The growth, as believed by many experts, is driven in part by the high cost of conventional health care along with increased awareness of alternative therapies spread by the media – both online and off line.
The cost-effectiveness of alternative medicine, which is only one aspect of its popularity, may not necessarily be a good thing. The inexpensive nature of these treatments means that most large medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies don’t see alternative therapies as being big money-makers. It’s far too costly to research the safety and effectiveness of a treatment used for thousands of years, or an herb that you can’t patent and market, if there’s little profit to be made for it.
As modern medicine becomes more advanced, technology (which is costly to implement and faces early obsolescence) becomes more advanced and with it the skyrocketing costs of health care. In comparison, alternative therapies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine are relatively simple, effective and inexpensive.
Starting up an alternative medicine clinic is an expensive proposition and convincing hospital administrators that alternative medicine is in the best interest of their patients when there is not enough “scientific proof” to back up the argument is not an easy task. However, it is being done. As one small example, Dr. Ka-Kit Hui founded the Center for East-West Medicine at the UCLA Medical Center because he felt it was in the best interest of his patients. Countless numbers of hospitals across the country now have their own Integrative Medical centers.
Alternative medicine is a growing business. The problem is that there’s not enough funds going into research. To put this in perspective, typically, it takes about $500 million for one drug to move from the laboratory to the drugstore. Overall, drug companies will spend an estimated $24 billion (according to a report in the L.A. Times ( link no longer available) this year on research and development, plus millions marketing their products directly to consumers. Compare that to the $100 million allocated by the National Institues of Health for the study of alternative medicine.
Skeptics wonder why there isn’t more hard proof that alternative remedies work. In addition to lack of funds for research, the therapy has to be proved and published in reputable medical journals before conventional practitioners will use it, and before the NIH will firmly support it as “evidence-based” medicine. Getting published in journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Nature, Science, Lancet and the British Medical Journal is yet another obstacle. Perhaps they should question the fraudulent science behind prescription drugs.
The New England Journal, the most prestigious of the journals, says it publishes less than 10% of the approximately 2,500 pieces of original research it receives each year. Of that 10% (roughly 250 submissions) 90% undergo significant revision as a result of peer review. You have to wonder just how many of the original submissions are in the alternative medicine genre and are being totally ignored – due to lack of interest, and lack of profit from advertising dollars.
Peer review is overstated and overrated. What the journals call peer review is just another name for editing. Peer review doesn’t mean other scientists repeat the original clinical trial; they just look at what the researchers have submitted, and the researchers don’t submit their original data more than once. Peer review cannot weed out false claims when it has no access to original data. Any contention that peer review is a purely, or even largely, scientific process is nonsense.
Set aside medical journals, peer reviews, scientific standards, research funds, and bottom line profits and we may be able to see that both Eastern and Western medicine have much to offer the human race as a whole. There are definite advantages to incorporating the two systems. As Dr. Hui so eloquently explains it, “The two systems are complementary with the strength of one compensating for the weakness of the other.”