The Atlantic, one of the oldest and most respected magazines around, has just come out with an article titled, "The Triumph of New-Age Medicine." In it, author David Freedman takes issue with those who would call new-age or alternative medicine "cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery."
But Freedman goes much further, asserting that the success and proliferation of new-age medicine (accupuncture, herbal medications, etc.) is not only due to their own efficacy, but also due to the decided lack of efficacy and usefulness of modern prescription drugs in treating heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and other scourges.
Freedman writes: "Unfortunately, the drugs we’ve thrown at these complex illnesses are by and large inadequate or worse, as has been thoroughly documented in the medical literature. The list of much-hyped and in some cases heavily prescribed drugs that have failed to do much to combat complex diseases, while presenting a real risk of horrific side effects, is a long one,including Avastin for cancer (blood clots, heart failure, and bowel perforation), Avandia for diabetes (heart attacks), and torcetrapib for heart disease (death). In many cases, the drugs used to treat the most-serious cancers add mere months to patients’ lives, often at significant cost to quality of life. No drug has proved safe and effective against Alzheimer’s, nor in combating obesity, which significantly raises the risk of all complex diseases. Even cholesterol-lowering statins, which once seemed one of the few nearly unqualified successes against complex disease, are now regarded as of questionable benefit in lowering the risk of a first heart attack, the use for which they are most widely prescribed."
In his blog, Forbes' Matthew Herper takes Freedman to task for these claims, citing them as simplistic and "horse microbiome." He writes: "I’m the first to argue that Avastin has not lived up to its promise, but it is a great drug in colorectal cancer, extending median survival by five months, and a good one in some types of lung cancer. Pfizer's torcetrapib proved deadly, but that was caught long before it would reach patients outside clinical trials. It’s not news that experimental drugs fail. Merck and Roche are working on similar medicines that may prove to be life-savers. Avandia is basically gone, but partly because there was an alternative to take its place. Yes, the battle against heart disease and cancer is slow, grinding trench warfare, but that’s because these our diseases written by evolution into our genetic code. And we’re still winning."
Herper himself then goes further and takes on alternative medicine and its claims of widespread success.
The Atlantic's blanket statement that "alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well," as Herper rightly points out, is highly debatable. Where Freedman does score some points is in maintaining that new-age medicine operates "at a much lower cost," and this is a challenge (in addition to further improving drug efficacy and safety) that manufacturers of prescription drugs must continue to confront.