Is it time to integrate medical and natural health care?

By Siouxsie Wiles 25/03/2011 26


This is the question posed by Richard Harman, a retired mechanical engineer turned ‘healing touch’ practitioner, in the February issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand. For those unfamiliar with Kai Tiaki, it is the publication of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation and is circulated to 44,000 nurses and healthcare practitioners around New Zealand. The full content of Richard Harman’s article is posted on his website. He writes:

‘…take advantage of treatments, complementary to medical care, that can rapidly heal some chronic ailments. As someone who has become familiar with a number of natural health care practices, I strongly believe our health care services would benefit hugely if practitioners of natural health care (who could be regarded as healing specialists) were better integrated into “mainstream” health services…

The ability for full integration to reduce the backlog of chronically ill people would steadily improve our economy and well being. The low cost of complementary treatments, relative to medical treatments, and the work of the incoming healing specialists, could heal many more people for the same cost as at present. The savings could also be used to help fund the training of more healers, whose work would become a grass roots form of health care.’

He discusses the importance of auras and energy fields in maintaining health and suggests integrating the natural health care practises of energy healing and homeopathy and cites the ‘pioneering’ work of James Oschman and Bruce Lipton.

I’m going to take issue with just two* points. First up, on why the medical profession resists integrating medical and complementary therapies. Says, Richard Harman:

‘The medical profession largely resists such integration on the grounds that many healers (to use their convenient name) are not medically qualified.’

No, the medical profession resists such integration because there is no reliable evidence that the treatments are effective. Just read  Prof Edzard Ernst & Dr Simon Singh’s excellent book on the subject, ‘Trick or Treatment?‘.

And secondly, that clinical trials are ‘ineffective’ and they should not be required for complementary treatments. He states:

‘However, too many complementary treatments have been “proved ineffective”, because medical trials are inappropriate for their subtle-energetic nature.

…One way to accelerate the process would be to delete the requirement for clinical trials of complementary treatments prior to their use with patients. The safety of the treatments, which have caused no deaths, and their unsuitability for medical trials could let their effectiveness record be accumulated while they are being used. That record would identify the most effective healers and treatments for each ailment.’

This argument makes me see red. How can a clinical trial be inappropriate? The whole idea behind evidence-based medicine is to remove all the biases and delusions we humans are capable of reading into things to find out if something is effective or not. It doesn’t matter if it homeopathy or drinking orange juice. It doesn’t matter how it works. What is important is that there is a measurable outcome. Time and time again, when cherry-picking and biases are removed, complementary treatments are found to be no more effective than placebo.

So back to the initial question: is it time to integrate medical and natural health care? I say no, but I think a better question would be, is it time to integrate placebo and medical health care? A recent publication by Kaptchuk et al [1] in the open access journal PloS One demonstrated the efficacy of prescribing placebo for irritable bowel syndrome. But what was really fascinating about this study is that the patients were told it was a placebo!

[1] Kaptchuk TJ, Friedlander E, Kelley JM, Sanchez MN, Kokkotou E, Singer JP, Kowalczykowski M, Miller FG, Kirsch I, Lembo AJ (2010). Placebos without deception: a randomized controlled trial in irritable bowel syndrome. PLoS One 5(12):e15591.

* Just two? But there were so many to choose from!


26 Responses to “Is it time to integrate medical and natural health care?”

  • There are an argument—not the ones Richard Harman presents!—for having these ‘alternative’ practitioners brought in the fold. I doubt Harman would like them though:-

    – they’d have to register, so that they’d be obligated to hold up to mainstream care standards. This was, for example, raised in response to case of a iridiologist treating a cancerous growth in the scalp in Nelson. I’ve two minds about it, but I can see the point.

    – there is a move in the EU to have all remedies show their effectiveness.

    Of course Harman’s suggestion rests on a double standard, which is what makes it ridiculous: to be regarded as essentially the same, but not to be held to the same standards. Doesn’t make any sense. If you want to a treatment be held with the same respect, you need the treatment to be held to the same standards.

    Mind you, citing Bruce Lipman and “quantum physics”, in the manner he does, pretty much says he’s outside sound discussion. Then he goes on to ‘Energy healing and homeopathy’. Sigh

    It’s depressing the extent this silliness is in New Zealand. Let’s hope the proposals for the Natural Health Products Bill help. (Hugely frustratingly, I never found time to contribute, esp. as I’ve written on this general issue several times.)

  • I feel sorry for the readers of the publication.

    I feel sorry for the editor that they are unable to see through the pseudo science of poor old Richard. I feel sad that the nursing profession is polluted by both.

    There is no denying that nursing (as in care) of patients is useful in patients recovery. It behoves the trainers of nurses to ensue their training – and care – is based on scientific methods. If it means teaching them how and why placebo works, then fine. The corollary is that they must also understand how woo doesn’t.

    If they don’t accept that and they want to work along side evidence based medical practitioners, they can no longer call themselves professionals. Not on my tax dollar anyway.

  • Richard Harman is a retired mechanical engineer. I suggest that he should quit “medical” practice and goe into civil engineering. Harman could make a lot of money applying his “healing touch” to earthquake affected buildings in the Christchurch area. Healing touch energy does wonders in treating obstructed load-bearing pathways in masonry. Government and business could save a fortune in demolition and rebuilding costs.

  • Nice one Rohan. And there would no a big saving, because of the subtle-energetic nature of his methods, from not requiring inspection of his building work.

  • Perhaps we should stop calling it “complementary” medicine and call it “contradictory” (to common sense) medicine.

  • Surely if ‘alternative’ medicine worked, it wouldn’t be alternative any more? It would be integreated into the conventional array of treatment options.

  • Carol,

    Essentially what the ‘merging’ arguments that I was pointing at drive at: they join in, but only if they measure up. Catch for them being that they’d have to measure up. As you say, they won’t be ‘alternative’ then. Sorry if I wasn’t being clear earlier.

    Perhaps a letter to the editor is in order? Or several.

  • It’s fine, Grant, I could see exactly what you were getting at. I think the way the initial question posed by Richard Harman was spurious in any case – it’s a false dichotomy to speak of ‘medical’ and ‘natural’ treatments. There are treatments that work and those that don’t.

  • In the village I grew up in the island, there were lots of village elders (still today) who practice the so called herbal medicine (younger brother of alternative/complementary medicine). People in the village are still dying of various illnesses from treatments given by those village oracles. Some people can be persuaded to go to hospital & others prefer to stick with herbal.

    I challenged the president of the Homeopathy Association from Mt Eden office a few years ago for a public debate with me on the scientific validity of homeopathy, but they declined. I asked him one question in our many email exchanges and he sent me pages & pages of homeopathy PDF documents that supposedly answered my question, but not a single document gave a straight answer my question.

    My question was basically simple. What’s the physical basis (physics) of the claim that water has memory? He even accused me of being closed minded. I replied back saying that I am basically close-minded to claims that contradict physical laws, such as materialization (matter just pop into existence out of thin-air), psycho-kinesis, etc, etc, etc,… and of course water-memory (a fundamental pillar of homeopathy).

  • “is it time to integrate placebo and medical health care?” Now – as a first step – thats a panel discussion I’d love to listen to! It’d be a long one thats for sure…

    Same goes for the “What’s the physical basis (physics) of the claim that water has memory?” (or something along the same lines). If the President of the HA of Mt Eden would grace us I’d be emotionally torn between despair and laughter thoughout though.

  • What on earth were the Kai Tiaki editors thinking???
    Alison, I wonder if there was a bit of Sokal effect here. Maybe the editors of the magazine we so intrigued to have someone from a different profession writing something, they didn’t check it or think about it properly.

    • Hi everyone.

      I did contact Kai Tiaki about the article and this was their reply:

      “Dear Siouxsie, thanks for your enquiry about responding to the article by Richard Harman. We would be very happy to publish a response. In fact, we have one this month from a nurse expressing some gratitude for the article! A letter from someone with an opposing point of view would be welcome, though it will not be published now until our April issue. NZNO does not have an official stance on the issue of natural health care. Kai Tiaki publishes a range of viewpoints from nurses and people involved in health care. We welcome debate on these issues and viewpoints.”

      I’ve sent them a response along the lines of my blog post. I also alerted the New Zealand Medical Association who told me they would write a letter to the editor too.

  • @Possum: He’s an engineer. Isn’t that something like a scientist?

    After all, the Gummint is always talking about Science and Engineering you know.

  • Siouxsie,

    Good to hear. I’d trying writing too, but I’m far too busy in the short-term.

    Regards the nurse’s response, it makes me wonder if there is section of their courses that teach what to be wary of re “alternative” remedies. Her (his?) response suggests it‘s needed.

  • I have to say, I’ve been keeping an eye (in a very limited fashion) this sort of CAM in NZ nursing and been very hearten by the fact that I can’t really find a following. In the U.S., it’s much more of an issue.

    I think we should be congratulating our Nurses for staying evidence based as long as they have in the face of overseas capitulation and encourage this to continue.

  • Interesting reading all your comments they made me smile , its amazing how indoctrinated a race of people we are becoming. Definately making alot of pharma companies very rich indeed! Do note however that every year in NZ 1500 people die due to misdiagnosis and the wrong medicines to ohhh a big fat 0 using natuarl health products!! funny that 🙂 wonder why?

    We are made up of emotional, physical and spiritual and healing the whole of you is important,everything has a place to make you well including hospitals, healers, natural doctors. Why is NZ so closed do you all fell threathened, so choice convential medicaine those that use natural really donmt give a dman they just want choiuce!! These natural medicines have healed indigeniously for years so putting lavender until a clinical trail or manuka holney will achieve what, make all you followers happy! what a waste of money that would be!

  • ohhh a big fat 0 using natuarl health products citations please. Definitely a requirement for statements like this, given that there are documented instances of people dying when they’ve eschewed medical treatment for an ‘alternative’ eg http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html (that site includes a number of other examples). No-one disputes the fact that people can & do die while in medical care – the issue is that we tend to ignore those who die while making use of ‘alternatives’.

  • Interested,

    Many conventional medicines are based on natural substances that, after testing, have been shown to be effective. If you wish to assume that untested natural materials “work” based on anecdotal and often confirmation biased observations go ahead. As Alison points out natural treatments are not as harmless as many people would have us believe.
    To paraphrase comedian Dara O’Briain “when we test herbal medicine the stuff that works is called medicine. Everything else is a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMvMb90hem8

  • I’m all for a positive mentality to aid the healing process but no way is this natural method with its talk of auras and energy fields able to offer a more effective solution. Dick Harman’s views cannot be serious, surely his controversial points are a poor publicity stunt in a hashed attempt to achieve some sales on an upcoming book or gain traffic to his website. The mere suggestion that a clinical trial might be inappropriate is simply ludicrous. I have been a volunteer on numerous medical trials and have felt the positive (and negative) affects of clinical testing myself. A great first-hand insight into the effectiveness of clinical trials from medical research volunteers can be found at http://rateclinicaltrials.co.uk. I totally get that mind-over-matter can heal in some cases but not as a total substitute to drugs. But for those patents aware of being prescribed placebos curing their irritable bowel syndrome just shows mind-over-matter can work… and perhaps integration of these medical approaches is the way forward!

  • I am all for a positive mentality to aid the healing process but no way is this natural method with its talk of auras and energy fields able to offer a more effective solution. Dick Harman’s views cannot be serious, surely his controversial points are a poor publicity stunt in a hashed attempt to achieve some sales on an upcoming book or gain traffic to his website. The mere suggestion that a clinical trial might be inappropriate is simply ludicrous. I have been a volunteer on numerous medical trials and have felt the positive (and negative) affects of clinical testing myself. A great first-hand insight into the effectiveness of clinical trials from medical research volunteers can be found at http://rateclinicaltrials.co.uk. I totally get that mind-over-matter can heal in some cases but not as a total substitute to drugs. But for those patents aware of being prescribed placebos curing their irritable bowel syndrome just shows mind-over-matter can work… and perhaps integration of these medical approaches is the way forward!