It’s one of the puzzles of our time that as medical science expands its reach, the demand for alternative therapies grows even faster. We saw an example in last month’s provincial throne speech. In the course of that presentation, the government announced support for a school of traditional Chinese medicine.
There are already a dozen or more such schools across the province. But most are stand-alone and small, with limited powers and status.
What the government wants, apparently, is a degree-granting college attached to one of the province’s universities. That’s a huge ratcheting-up of the role and standing of Chinese medicine.
Graduates of the program will be allowed to use the title “Doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.” They will be permitted to treat a wide range of medical conditions, including such life-threatening ailments as cancer and heart disease.
There is, however, a catch. These new practitioners may employ only traditional Chinese methods of diagnosis and treatment. Those mainly consist of herbal remedies and acupuncture. Mainstream forms of clinical care — diagnostic imaging, surgery, anesthesia and most prescription drugs — are off-limits.
This is an enormously risky proposition. There is convincing evidence that acupuncture can be effective in relieving pain. There is also no question that some herbal teas and powders have medicinal value. But few of these remedies have been tested scientifically.
One examination of 15 traditional Chinese medicines found ground-up remnants of deer, buffalo and toads, as well as traces of two endangered animal species. Most of the products contained ingredients that weren’t listed on the label.
Despite these obstacles, the federal government does license traditional remedies. Yet the process is less than reassuring.
Health Canada may grant a licence if the product has been authorized in the country of origin. That could mean a rigorous test has been conducted.
But there is no guarantee of this. Many of the manufacturers in countries such as China and Bhutan are small family businesses. Quality control is an issue.
However, there is a more serious concern. By permitting practitioners of Chinese medicine to treat wide-ranging ailments, yet limiting them to traditional methods, the government is inviting failure.
Even impeccably manufactured herbal remedies are no match for mainstream treatments when life-threatening illnesses are involved.
Alternative therapies may be useful in dealing with side-effects such as nausea or pain. But as one leading medical authority puts it: “There is currently no strong evidence from studies in people that herbal remedies can treat, prevent or cure cancer.”
The danger is that by giving graduates of this new program a broad scope, the government is promoting a treatment option beyond its sphere of safety. When Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc., was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, he rejected surgery at first and chose herbal remedies instead. He died of the disease in 2011. Experts believe Jobs might have been cured, or his life prolonged, if he had been operated on immediately.
If a corporate CEO could make this choice, so will others with less knowledge.
Last week a political strategy document belonging to the provincial Liberal party was leaked. The document discussed options for garnering the “ethnic vote.” Among the ideas listed as “quick wins” were apologizing for past wrongs, and giving more recognition to multicultural events. (Premier Christy Clark has since apologized for the strategy and ordered an investigation.)
Boosting traditional Chinese medicine wasn’t mentioned. But if that isn’t what’s going on here, why the haste?
Alternative therapies may well hold some promise. But before the government elevates their profile, much more research is needed. That will certainly take longer, but it won’t put lives at risk.
© Copyright 2013