Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

It’s not news that if you live in a country without universal health care, or you don’t have health insurance, it can get really expensive to stay healthy. This is especially true if you have some kind of chronic condition or you have a cap on the amount of coverage you have. In that case, it’s easy to be tempted by alternative medicines. However, these remedies can do more harm than good.

Dr. Paul Offit takes a look at these methods in Killing Us Softly. Offit pulls no punches, discussing a case early on in which a child’s parents decided that they would not pursue conventional treatment for their son’s thyroid cancer. Instead, they decided to pursue various alternative treatments. Ultimately, the child died despite a 95% chance of recovery had he received proper treatment.

What parent would do that, would make the conscious decision to refuse life-saving medicine in favor of something ineffective at best? One would argue a parent that does not care about their child’s health. But that is not the case here. The parent that would do that is the parent that genuinely believes that the natural cure that they are choosing is just as effective if not more so than conventional medicine. That is the parent that falsely believes that conventional medicine could cause more harm than good. It’s a completely false belief, but one made with good intentions. Still, good intentions hardly justify behavior that causes real harm.

Dr. Offit discusses how people come to such terribly, disastrously wrong conclusions. He talks about Dr. Oz at length. Dr. Oz is one of the more prominent charlatans that spreads misinformation about how to take care of one’s health, but they are widespread. It creates an environment in which the most desperate people in the world can be taken advantage of.

Dr. Offit gets his point across with very little judgement for those taken advantage of. He doesn’t hold back, however, when it comes to the people that spread misinformation. Killing Us Softly reads as a book made for the layperson, not necessarily for medical professionals. It’s easy to read and understand for nearly anyone.

Dr. Offit isn’t completely dismissive of alternative medicine. This came as a surprise to me, but he has a good point. Sometimes, someone’s ailment is either incurable or there’s nothing that actually needs to be done. If someone has a cold that they’re going to get over in a few days anyway, but whatever natural remedy they take makes them feel better, is it harmful? To use a personal example, I drink peppermint tea to help with minor stomach upset. Even if the tea is ultimately not helping anything, it’s not hurting me, and it might be eliciting enough of a placebo response that it makes me feel better. Dr. Offit argues that that is the place that alternative medicines can have.

Alternatively, someone who is terminally ill who uses what is essentially a placebo to relive pain. It doesn’t prolong life but conventional medicine wouldn’t either. It doesn’t shorten their life, and it makes them feel somewhat better. In that context, is the alternative medicine doing harm? Dr. Offit says there too, alternative medicine has a place.

It reminds me of an argument from a podcast I listen to: Oh No, Ross and Carrie. In their episode covering Christian Science, while they generally disagreed with the faith’s practices towards healthcare, Carrie Poppy said that a Christian Science facility would be a viable option for end-of-life care. If someone who is in hospice doesn’t want to use painkillers and just wants a comforting environment, Poppy said that they would be able to get that through Christian Science.

It seems that Dr. Offit is trying to use his knowledge to make the general public more informed about the decisions they make about healthcare. Whether you’re skeptical about conventional medicine or alternative medicine, or have no opinions either way, Killing us Softly: the Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine is a good resource to make an informed decision.

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