Mainstream medicine’s not perfect, but it beats the alternative

Critics of the medical establishment complain that it needlessly “medicalizes” every health issue. Which is fair—but only up to a point

health community services manager


Defenders of David and Collet Stephan are right about the Canadian healthcare system, and about the “mainstream” approach to healthcare. Sometimes the system kills. Sometimes errors are made. Some pharmaceuticals, in some circumstances, do more harm than good. Preventable “adverse events” may kill as many as 23,000 adults Canadians each year. Sometimes a trip to the hospital makes things worse, rather than better.

Mr and Mrs Stephan were recently convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their toddler, Ezekiel. Their story has many elements, but a central one of them seems clearly to be a mistrust of the mainstream healthcare system. Rejecting that system, David and Collet Stephan opted instead to treat (or rather, “treat”) their child’s very serious illness with herbs and with vegetable smoothies. They didn’t seek the help of mainstream, evidence-based medicine until it was far too late.

There are plenty of people who mistrust mainstream medicine. That’s why “alternative” and “complementary” medicines sell so well. People object to a system that they see as being dominated by big pharma, a system that intrusively asserts control over our lives, telling us what’s wrong with us, and telling us what we must do in order to get better (as they choose to define “better”). It’s a system that is notorious for “medicalizing” everything. Menopause? That’s a disease, and we’ve got the cure! Baldness? There’s a chemical solution to that! Pregnancy? Let’s treat it like an illness!

The thing is, for all its flaws, mainstream medicine works. That is, it mostly works, and doctors and scientists search pretty relentlessly for the bits that don’t work, and they tend to toss those out. Is there an error rate? Yes. Do pharmaceutical companies have too much influence? Certainly. Do physicians sometimes prescribe medicines that pose risks but do little to help? Yes. But overall, mainstream healthcare works. Antibiotics work. Chemotherapy works. Vaccines work. The same simply cannot be said for almost any of the wide array of complementary and alternative “medicines.”

So failing to take your dying child to the hospital because you don’t trust “modern medicine” is literally like failing to get your kid out of a burning building, simply because you don’t like the look of the weather outside.

Those who mistrust mainstream medicine ought to think, before opting out, not just about what they’re jumping away from, but what they’re jumping into. Imagine you don’t like the way your physician is imposing his view of the world for you, and worry that his view is unduly influenced by the the marketing dollars of big pharma. So you opt to visit a naturopath instead. What you get is your naturopath imposing his view of the world on you, a view that is likely to be unduly influenced by the marketing dollars of the big alternative medicine companies. The move—from a system that “medicalizes” your health to one that “alternativizes”—is not clearly a positive one, even from an ideological point of view. And from the perspective of what we know about what actually works, the move is a disastrous one. And when the stakes are as high as the lives of our children, it’s a move that warrants considerable scrutiny.


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2 comments on “Mainstream medicine’s not perfect, but it beats the alternative

  1. Chris that’s a great piece of writing on this topic. I have rarely seen it expressed so well. I’m a director of a cancer charity, the Grace Gawler Institute, in Australia. We help patients here and overseas access the very best of modern cancer medicine. We act as navigators to help them achieve that and navigate the very complex medical system cancer maze. Some of our patients have experienced mistakes and poor service from the medical systems. We help them overcome these problems. However I can safely say, that every patient who has experimented with alternative cancer medicines, has failed miserably. In 40 years and over 20,000 patients, we have not seen one success. So the choice is the medical system with its problems but which mostly works as you say, or the greedy alternative anti-medical nonsystem that has no records, no checks and balances, no coordination.
    My only critique of your article is this. We must stop lumping alternative medicines in with complementary medicines which are used to complement standard medical treatments. Actually we successfully use three types of complementary support. Complementary medicines, complementary therapies, and a wide range of complementary care. Thanks again for the article Chris I am posting it far and wide.

    • Pip

      How do you differentiate between alternative medicines/therapies and complementary medicines/therapies?