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Author: Kathy Sykes
  • Video
  • 5 minutes

Alternative Therapies: What can mainstream medicine learn?

Updated Monday, 17th March 2008
If people gain benefits from some of the methods used by alternative therapists, does this mean there are lessons for all medical practitioners?

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The more I found out about alternative therapies so the more of these programmes I've made, the more convinced I've become that there are things that conventional medicine needs to learn from alternatives/complementary medicines.

And some of it we're starting to study, but I think there's a load more work we can do on placebo, on expectation, on belief, on the whole drama of illness, and things that we could then apply - we could teach our medical students better - about the way their interactions affects their success rates. And I think they're told a bit about it, and some medical schools are better than others, and some is done.

But generally, we tend to think of placebo as being this annoying thing we've got to get rid of in experiments rather than something that can profoundly help people to feel better. And so I think there are things we can learn to understand placebo better and then apply it better. But I suppose also, something I feel quite strongly, is that we tend to measure impact in terms of how well somebody recovers - they've got a disease, do they get better?

And the thing is about us human beings, it's not just our disease that matters, it's us as people that matters. And I think our wellbeing is something that we really need to understand better.

I mean, in the last series there was a woman who had been going to see a healer, and we didn't include her, but she said I still have cancer, I have terminal cancer, and the healing has probably made no difference to my disease, but I am happier than I've ever been, and it's because of this. And that's not something you can ignore. There's a woman with terminal cancer saying that she's happier than she's ever been because of a treatment.

I think sometimes, not always, but sometimes alternative and complementary therapists can be good at helping people feel like they're in the driving seat, they are empowered, they can make a difference, that they have some role in treating an illness, and certainly a role in feeling healthier.

And that's massively empowering. That really matters to how somebody feels about themselves and their illness. And that has to count.

There was a guy in the last series, he was the doctor who'd done the fake knee surgery, the sham knee surgery, I think he was called Doctor Mosley, and he was amazing, because he said that what he learned in finding out more about the placebo and finding out more about what alternative therapists can use, he said that it changed the way he practiced.

So he would no longer have a computer in the room and write things on the computer about the patient, and he would always give them his undivided attention, and he would still tell them the probability of the surgery working or not, but he would say there's a 40% chance it will work, but it's my expectation that your knee is going to be better. So he would do all this stuff that would enhance people's belief that something was going to have an effect.

And he said he spends longer with patients, he gets rid of the computer, he makes notes and things like that, and he does that because he knows that makes a difference to the outcomes of his surgery. So I think that's something that we can learn from alternatives, complementary medicines.

Something that struck me in the programme that we were making on reflexology, women who had breast cancer were coming to hospital and, suddenly, for the first time, instead of coming to hospital for chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or something really grim - I was there with dad, going into hospital, and it's gruesome, you associate this place with fear, with death, with feeling ill, and it's horrendous, and yet here are these women coming to hospital to have something lovely done to them, to have reflexology.

And they said it helped them to feel differently about going to hospital which is, itself, quite an important thing. We can't afford to give reflexology to everybody who's scared of hospitals, but it's a nice shift in the way that we think about medicine and healthcare.


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