“It’s not an easy truth to swallow..”

After last week’s excellent programme on The Great Girona Gold Hunt, the BBC 1 Northern Ireland 9pm slot tonight may be a disappointment. Get Well Northern Ireland “examines a one year pilot scheme – the Get Well Scheme – which operated in two clinics in Northern Ireland until March 2008.” That’s the scheme launched by Peter Hain, “a user of complementary medicine [him]self”.. The programme producer, Ronan McCloskey, is quoted here as saying, “Without a doubt the therapies featured in this programme help patients and make them feel better. But who should pay for them?” Those who want to use them I’d suggest. But then I’ve made my position on supernaturally-based medical treatments abundantly clear several times. Coincidentally, in today’s Guardian there is a timely review by Olivia Laing, “a former herbalist”, of two books critical of the alternative therapy scam movement – Rose Shapiro’s Suckers and Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. From the review

Despite the apparent lack of rigorous evidence, complementary medicine has also become increasingly legitimised in the past decade. It is taught in universities, receives £500m a year from the NHS and is recommended by the World Health Organisation. As far as Shapiro is concerned, this is a disgrace. In many cases, she’s right – the five British homeopathic hospitals funded by public money are a debatable use of NHS resources. But who’s to blame? Alongside practitioners, her culprits include the government, the media and, provocatively, consumers themselves.

Updated below the fold.The review continues

Patients seem determined to embrace aura cleansing and Vega testing no matter what sceptics say. This is partly due to a widespread misunderstanding of how the body works, combined with a pervasive sense of toxicity that a media fixated on health does nothing to quell. But it is also due to dissatisfaction with conventional medicine. Singh and Ernst write: ‘It seems as though some doctors delegate empathy to alternative practitioners.’ Their prescription – that doctors increase the average seven-minute consultation – is no substitute for the more substantial appeals of the holistic approach. ‘Alternative medicine knows exactly how to make each user special,’ Shapiro says. ‘In the name of treating the whole person, it wants to know all about you – there is no detail of your life too insignificant to be of interest.’

The implication – that we spend billions each year on what amounts to little more than snake oil because our critical faculties are dulled by the pleasures of having someone listen to us – is deeply uncomfortable and not entirely true. Medicine is an art as much as a science and the sick clearly long for their symptoms to carry more meaning than the prevailing mechanistic model allows.

The patients who seek alternative practitioners are often described by doctors as ‘heartsink’: they suffer from chronic illnesses that respond poorly to conventional treatments or from a constellation of symptoms that are not easily diagnosed or treated. The problem is that, as one doctor told Shapiro, ‘headaches, heartaches, backaches, aching feet, fatigue, anxiety and those vague burning pains in your legs at night – these are the nemeses of real doctors. Many people have these symptoms but the cruel truth is there is no reliable cure for any of them’. It’s not an easy truth to swallow, but where there is no real evidence to the contrary it’s infinitely preferable to the sugared alternative. [added emphasis]

Indeed.

As the BBC article notes, “Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is now assessing the results of the scheme.” Not the results of any scientific trial.

And it’s also worth noting that whereas Peter Hain claimed..

“I am certain, as a user of complementary medicine myself, that this has the potential to improve health substantially.”

..the primary focus of tonight’s documentary appears to be whether or not the scheme reduces the use of prescription drugs.

Boo Armstrong, the director of London-based Get Well UK, which delivered the scheme in Northern Ireland, said the therapies can heal people and save the NHS money.

Let’s see the evidence that the therapies actually “heal people” first.

Rather than continuing down the path of The Un-Enlightenment.

Adds The programme producer, Ronan McCloskey, in the Belfast Telegraph

“We also catch up with Marie Vaughan, a former nurse who lives in Ballymena.

Marie worked within the oncology department of Guy’s Hospital in London before returning to Northern Ireland.

Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent two operations to remove the tumour. Marie turned down an offer of precautionary chemotherapy.

Marie’s story does not fall under the Get Well Scheme but we felt it important to look at the other side of the ‘combined fields of complementary and alternative medicines’ debate.”

That’s not “the other side” of the debate.

As pauljames noted in the comment zone below.

“a whole programme on pseudoscience without an investigation into placebo effects, the ethical dilemma of lying to patients to make them feel better or the money being made out of quackery?”

Indeed.

Update Don’t take my word for it. You can watch the programme on the iPlayer.