In this issue of the newsletter, we examine some of medicine's greatest achievements and see how they stack up when viewed with a skeptical eye.
To be sure, over the years, I’ve tweaked medical doctors in my newsletters and blogs. But truth be told, unlike many in the alternative health community, I’m actually a huge fan of doctors — not so much the organizations that represent them — but the doctors themselves. Yes, there are doctors who are incompetent or unethical, but for the most part, the vast majority of medical doctors that I have met in my life are extremely competent, highly dedicated, and often even heroic. And make no mistake, no matter how into alternative health you are, there are times you absolutely need a doctor. If your name is John Wayne Bobbitt, you needed a doctor after your wife “altered” you, not an herbalist.
That said, when it comes to most catastrophic illnesses, medical doctors are clueless. They merely manage symptoms and push test numbers up and down. And when it comes to health and nutrition, for the most part, things are even worse; doctors are often arrogantly ignorant. On average, the typical doctor spends a total of 6-8 hours in their entire medical career studying health and nutrition — and yet they feel free to dogmatically pronounce on all aspects of diet and supplementation with less knowledge than any lay person who has read two good books on the subject. For shame!
In the developed world, we have grown up trusting our doctors. They are frequently the heroes on our favorite TV shows, and we have largely turned over to them complete responsibility for our health. And yes, modern medical science has made incredible advances and contributions which have alleviated much pain and suffering. Surgical technique (the cutting apart and repairing of the human body) has made remarkable progress. Identification of germs that cause disease and improved sanitation, which aids in preventing that disease, have also seen epic achievements. Burn treatment, trauma, and emergency room care are nothing less than miraculous. When it comes to these areas of medicine, the value doctors bring to us is impossible to measure.
It occurred to me, it might be fun in this issue of the newsletter to examine some of medicine’s great achievements and see how they stack up when viewed with a skeptical eye. To do that, however, I needed to identify those discoveries that modern medicine takes the most pride in. It would be nice if there were a list of achievements of which the medical community was most proud of so I didn’t have to arbitrarily choose them myself. I cringe when the tables are reversed and the medical community evaluates alternative health supplements or procedures by setting up its own protocols for evaluation, and then dismisses the supplement based on that flawed protocol. An example would be evaluating the cancer benefits of laetrile as an isolated supplement, even though every clinic that claimed success with it used it as just one piece of a multi-faceted health protocol. Testing laetrile out of context, then, is like deciding that heart transplants actually involve two separate procedures:
- Removing the damaged heart
- Then replacing the empty space with the donor heart
And once you’ve made that false assumption, it would be easy to make another, that since they are separate procedures, you need to test them independently of each other — like deciding to test laetrile as a standalone supplement. But if you separate the pieces from the whole, it should not be surprising that the outcomes disappoint and that you come to the conclusion that heart removal by itself is 100% fatal and therefore should not be recommended in any circumstances. It’s nonsense obviously, as is most medical evaluation of alternative health protocols and supplements. In any case, I did not want to be accused of the same kind of hypocrisy by arbitrarily choosing a list of medical accomplishments that were handpicked by me so that I could trash them. Fortunately, the British Medical Journal solved my problem. Last year, it ran a survey among its readers (mostly doctors) to determine the biggest medical advancements of all time. (Thank you BMJ.) So, based on their list, here, with my comments on them, are the top ten.
Sanitation: 1,795 votes. The importance of clean drinking water and waste disposal was recognized in the late 1800s, as diseases began to be linked to impure water. However, the World Health Organization says there is still a long way to go. More than 1.1 billion people now lack access to drinking water from an improved source; 2.6 billion do not have basic sanitation.
I’m not actually sure if this qualifies as a medical breakthrough. It’s more of a public health issue. And heck, the people who run most of these operations are bureaucrats and PHDs, not medical doctors. But hey, medical doctors were involved in some of the discoveries, so let’s give them credit for what is truly a major advance in health. Then again, if they take the credit for improved sanitation, shouldn’t they also take the blame for the proliferation of all of the antibacterial wipes and soaps that have flooded the market — and all of the problems associated with their indiscriminate use?
Antibiotics: 1,642 votes. Alexander Fleming, a British bacteriologist, discovered penicillin in 1928 by accident when he sloppily left a Petri dish of bacteria unwashed in his lab. He found a substance (later named penicillin) growing on it that killed the bugs, and modern-day antibiotics got its start. Fleming shared the Nobel Prize in 1945 for the discovery.
I’m happy to give doctors the credit for this advancement, as long as you also give them the blame for trashing it. Thanks to overprescribing, overuse, and poor management of patients, the medical community has created a situation even worse than existed before the advent of antibiotics. Welcome to the world of medically created super-bacteria. You don’t need a military conspiracy to create Outbreak-like disasters. Medical arrogance works very nicely, thank you.
Anesthesia: 1,574 votes. In 1846, a Boston dentist used ether during surgery, putting an end to much of the pain of operations. Since then, general anesthesia has become a mainstay.
Oh, a big thumbs-up on this one. However, it’s not quite the advance you might think it is. The use of opiates and herbs to kill pain before surgery goes back to ancient Rome, and the use of acupuncture and chilling of limbs before surgery goes back even further in time to ancient China. Yes, modern anesthesia is an improvement — but true credit for this discovery belongs to alternative healers who came along well before the modern medical fraternity was even a glint in its founders’ eyes.
Vaccines: 1,337 votes. Vaccines have helped prevent a variety of diseases — including polio, whooping cough, and measles. The first was Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, in 1796.
This too is a nuanced issue. For every positive you can point to when it comes to vaccination, you can point to a corresponding negative. Look, I’m not saying vaccines should be eliminated (besides, that’s not going to happen anyway) — just that we should use a lot more discrimination than we are at the moment in their application. And with that said, I’m not sure they belong in the top 10 medical advances.
Discovery of DNA structure: 1,000 votes. Scientists James Watson and Francis Crick presented the structure of the DNA helix, the molecule responsible for carrying genetic information from one generation to the next, in 1953. It earned them the Nobel Prize in 1962.
It certainly is profound, but I’m not sure you can call it a great medical advance… yet. At the moment, only one disease has actually been cured using gene therapy, and a rather obscure one at that. At this point in time, the benefits of gene therapy are more promise than reality.
But there’s another potential benefit to the unraveling of DNA: predicting the likelihood of disease by looking at your genetic code. Billed as a major advance in medicine, it unfortunately has a dark side. First, it can potentially be used to deny people access to insurance, based on the risk factors discovered in their DNA. But more importantly, as is already happening, it can cause a medical overreaction. Consider breast cancer, where after testing positive for the “breast cancer gene,” women are opting to have their breasts prophylactically removed rather than risk a future cancer. But studies have shown that diet and lifestyle can turn cancer genes on and off in a matter of days. A recent study of men with prostate cancer found that diet and lifestyle changes could “switch off” some 453 cancer-promoting genes, while simultaneously “switching on” some 48 cancer-fighting genes. If you’re going to claim the discovery of DNA as number 5 on the list, then don’t you have to list the discovery of alternative health as number 4 or higher because the study proves that diet and lifestyle trump DNA?
Germ theory: 843 votes. In the late 1800s, Louis Pasteur was the first to suggest that disease is caused by exposure to microorganisms. Others furthered the theory, showing that specific diseases are caused by specific “bugs.”
Come on! How many times can you take credit for the same discovery? Aren’t Sanitation (#1) and Antibiotics (#2) expressions of germ theory? Sanitation reduces exposure to germs, and antibiotics kill germs. It’s all based on germ theory.
Oral contraceptive pill: 842 votes. The pill arrived on the U.S. market in 1960. For women who use it correctly, oral contraception can be up to 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.
I’m not sure what to say about this discovery without offending some large segment of my subscribers. Suffice it to say, that for whatever benefits may be ascribed to this discovery, the tremendous increase in female cancers we’ve seen over the last couple of decades may not be unrelated. Synthetic hormones wreck havoc with the body.
Evidence-based medicine: 636 votes. As the name suggests, evidence-based medicine involves making use of the current best evidence (such as research), combined with a patient’s values and a doctor’s clinical experience, to make decisions about patient care. The term was coined in the early ’90s and the concept has been evolving ever since.
Ah, one of my favorites. In principle a huge winner. In practice, not so much. First, far less medicine is evidence based than you might believe — only about 15% as it turns out. And don’t forget the practice of off-labeling drugs, which bypasses all testing — and of which the FDA feels so highly that they’ve decided to eliminate virtually all restrictions. And then, there’s the fact that much of what we think is evidence-based, turns out, on closer examination, to actually be based on very weak evidence and is often contradictory. Bottom line: evidence-based medicine is great in theory, not so much in practice.
Medical imaging: 471 votes. The X-ray was accidentally discovered in 1895. Since then, the field has expanded, giving us computed tomography (CT scans), positron emission (PET scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), and ultrasound.
What can you say bad about medical imaging? Oh yeah, right — the fact that continued exposure to X-rays is a contributing factor to cancer. But other than that….
Then again, MRI’s certainly avoid that problem.
Computers: 405 votes. From medical records to insurance, to making sure your new medication isn’t going to clash with an existing one, computers are now considered as important as their stethoscopes by some doctors. They’ve been in use in medicine since the early 1960s. Doctors can access information on new drugs and interactions, new medical studies, and clinical trials, and keep patient records stored at their fingertips.
Okay, I’m not sure how this qualifies as an advancement in medicine. It’s an advancement in technology that has been incorporated into medicine. You might as well claim automobiles as a major advancement in medical technology since they allow ambulances to reach hospitals more quickly. Or for that matter, what about telephones and fax machines that allowed doctors in different cities to confer about the same patient in real time. I’m sorry, computers are a great advancement, but do not qualify as a medical advancement per se.
Or if they do qualify as a medical advancement, then computers qualify equally as an “alternative health advancement.” Think about it. Thanks to computers, I can communicate the principles of alternative health, recommend supplements and therapies, and call government health agencies to task — and broadcast that information to my subscriber base, which is located in virtually every country in the world (hello, all of you in Iran, Zambia, and Malaysia) with the push of a button.
But enough playing around. Let me list what I consider to be some of medicines greatest advancements… yet to come.
The medical hit parade according to Jonny Nostradamus
Stem cell research: Despite a great deal of resistance to stem cell research outside of the medical community, advances have continued — and in most cases without the need for embryonic stem cells. Tests on mice for treatment of diabetes have shown that stem cell therapy can indeed stimulate the regeneration of lost beta cells to produce insulin. And companies are now gearing up to begin marketing the use of umbilical cord stem cells in the “theoretical” treatment of a whole range of disease. Although more wishful thinking than practical at the moment, stem cell therapy is likely to begin asserting itself as a major medical treatment for a multitude of diseases in the next 10-20 years.
- Emergency surgery: It doesn’t matter how many supplements you take or how good your diet, after a major accident, you’re going to be thankful for all of the great advancements in surgical technique and body part repair that we have witnessed over the last 50 years. Sadly, much of the great advancements in surgical technique have come as the result of treating battlefield wounds and automobile accidents. Truly, there is almost no limit to the types of wounds and injuries that can now be successfully treated by surgeon.
- Prosthetics: The advancement in prosthetics is almost mind boggling — again, something beyond the capability of alternative medicine. In fact, Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic arm in The Empire Strikes Back is looking less like science fiction by the day. And it’s not just limbs, the vision goggles that allowed the blind Geordi LaForge in Star Trek to see are also becoming reality.
Sub cellular intervention (gene therapy, metabolomics, and metagenomics): Even though I made fun of it earlier, gene therapy is coming. Yes, diet and lifestyle can turn genes on and off, but gene therapy will ultimately be able to replace missing genes and repair defective genes. Again, we’re talking 10-20 years down the road before we see any significant number of practical applications, but they’re coming.
But gene therapy is just the tip of the iceberg. Metabolomics is the study of all of the byproducts produced by your body’s myriad metabolic processes. These metabolites are easily found in the urine and blood and provide a wealth of information as to the state of your health, and more importantly, where your health is headed. Certain patterns of metabolites can easily identify schizophrenia, and more importantly, how a patient is likely to respond to a particular drug when treating that schizophrenia. Metagenomics, on the other hand, is the study of the bacteria that live in and on our body. That’s right, we are not alone. Over 1,000 species of bacteria live symbiotically not just in our guts, but in our noses, mouths, urinary tracts, and on our skin (6 different species in the crook of your elbow alone). We now know, for example, that the bacteria on your skin moisturize it and that the bacteria in your gut moderate inflammatory bowel problems and may determine whether or not you become obese.
- Crisis intervention and options for those who won’t take care of themselves: Even though we know that diet and lifestyle can prevent and/or reverse much of the catastrophic illness we see in the world today, that doesn’t matter to huge segments of the population. Heck, everyone knows smoking is unhealthy, and yet vast numbers of people throughout the world still choose to smoke. The bottom line is that we need options for those people who are too undisciplined or unwilling to take control of their own health. And we need options for those people who need to buy time while pursing an alternative option when their condition is discovered late in the game. Medicine can play an essential role in buying time in times of crisis and in providing options for people who won’t take care of themselves.
The role of medicine
As we look back, it is easy to see that modern medical science has indeed made incredible advances and contributions which have alleviated much pain and suffering — and will likely continue to do so as humanity stumbles into the future. However, in our exploration, we we have seen glimpses of medicine’s darker side– chinks in the armor of its accomplishments if you will. For now, though, let’s give medicine its due and leave on a high note. Congratulations to doctors and all they have done!
In our next issue, however, we will explore some of the less positive aspects of modern medicine’s “achievements.”