The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, June 3, 2011

There's No Money In It?

A few weeks back, several friends of mine sent me links to an article that falsely claimed that Canadian researchers had developed a cheap and effective cure for cancer, and that it was simply not being developed because "there's no money in it." Because, you know, cancer researchers are only in it for the money, there's never been a single one engaged in the work for reasons of altruism, or desire for an intellectual challenge, or even simple curiosity. Nope, never happens.

That got me thinking, though, about the popular narratives in our society regarding research and how they get applied to different people and institutions. The "THEY don't want you to know THIS because THEY will lose money!" notion is very popular, but gets applied unevenly. It is usually applied to the medical industry, but pretty much never applied to the alt-med industry, even though your local homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and reiki providers all make money off of what they do, and would be just as put out financially were you to be cured of your ailments as your local doctor and pharmacy. It's common for many of the alt-med supporters to say that their favored practitioners favor preventing illness, and therefore don't stand to lose money if you are cured of illness...but, well, so do both doctors and the medical insurance companies, two of the three big players in the medical industry.

Doctors favor it because, if they can get you to do preventative care, they can lighten their work load, still make money (preventative care still requires doctor visits), and potentially lower their malpractice risk. Moreover, doctors associated with hospitals spend a large amount of time treating people who are uninsured and impoverished, and therefore will actually result in their institutions losing money, and getting people to engage in preventative care reduces these losses. And that's without getting into the fact that people generally don't become doctors to become wealthy - if one wishes to make money, pursuing an MBA is both less time consuming and has a much higher rate of reward on the other end. Most people become doctors because they are either interested in medicine from an intellectual standpoint, or they want to help people. In over three decades, I have yet to visit a doctor and have them not speak with me about nutrition, exercise, healthy sleeping habits, and other issues aimed at reducing the risk of disease.

And insurance companies lose money when you get sick. Every time you require a medication or treatment, the insurance company has to pay out, meaning that it is in the insurance companies' best interests for you to remain healthy. In fact, a common feature of insurance policies is that the company will pay a larger portion of preventative care visits than treatment visits, specifically because this is a good strategy to make money.

Really, the only part of the medical industry that benefits from people becoming or remaining sick are the pharmaceutical manufacturers. And even there, it's not quite that simple. Pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, mutate and require new treatments. Old treatments can be improved upon, and as some diseases are made less urgent with treatment, resources are opened up to deal with others. In other words, there's not precisely a shortage of diseases needing medications. In fact, one of the main legitimate criticisms of pharmaceutical companies is that they are more interested in developing medications for the treatment of mild problems for wealthy people than serious problems for poor people.

All three of these groups - the doctors, the drug manufacturers, and the insurance companies - can do, and have done, some shady things. I am not trying to claim otherwise. However, the notion that something such as a cure for cancer would be ignored simply because it doesn't seem likely to make gobs of cash is, frankly, absurd. If nobody else did, the insurance companies would push this to the forefront because they would make money from a cheap, effective cure for cancer.

By contrast, most alt-med purveyors do make money from not providing information about cures for diseases. There have been a large number of studies on reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy, etc., and while there is some small evidence of some efficacy for certain types of pain reduction from acupuncture, the others routinely fail even the most basic of blinded trials. Chiropractic shows some efficacy for lower back pain, but most chiropractors offer basic physical therapy (a conventional and non-chiropractic treatment) in addition to chiropractic treatments, but don't inform their patients of the difference. And if one looks into herbal therapies, there is an astounding mish-mash of stuff that does work, stuff that doesn't work, stuff that might work, and stuff that's dangerous to the patient, all of which gets pushed with equal fervor without regards to efficacy.

In many cases, people are encouraged to use these types of treatments for conditions that are, in fact, treatable or even curable by standard medical treatments, but not cured, or even made worse, by the alt-med treatments (such as infections, spinal problems, tendonitis, etc.).

So, while I can understand the suspicion that many people have of the medical industry, a suspicion that is sometimes earned, the same suspicion should also be held towards the alt-med industry, which also makes huge amounts of money, which also (just like the medical industry) has political lobbyists trying to push laws in favor of the alt-med industry, and which tends to be happy to push untested, disproven, and even dangerous treatments onto it's patients.

Incidentally, while I was writing this, I checked my email, and saw the following advertisement in the side-bar:

I find much hilarity in the notion that there is a shadowy cabal of dermatologists secretly plotting what skin care secrets are released to the public, and which are kept hidden away, I am assuming in a dusty tome bound in leather made from human skin.


Lynn said...

I remember the amazing oil filter, too... not alt med, but guaranteed to do something wonderful for your car, if only the big auto makers would let it on the market.

One of my favorite blogs is, which discuses specifics of the alt met phenomena. I have to be careful, though, as it seems the most unlikely people turn out to have firmly-held beliefs in one aspect or another of this nonsense.

Anthroslug said...

I actually had no real opinion on most of this stuff until about ten years ago. I had always assumed that, if so many people are buying into it, there must be something to it. Then, out of curiosity, I decided to look into homeopathy, then chiropractic, and on down the line, and found that very few of these beliefs had supporting evidence, and most had detracting evidence.

What is remarkable to me, though, is how many of the people who are into this will insist that I "have an open mind" and hear them out on it, but are unwilling to hear out anyone who doesn't believe in it.

Lynn said...

Chiropractic certainly has its uses, mostly treating low back pain, but as far as I can tell, most practitioners go way beyond that... all the way into fantasy land. There's a booth at the mall, advertizing chiropractic as a cure for an amazing list of illness, including a number that are neurological in nature. And insurance often covers this crap.

As for homeopathy... well, I tend to rant when I get on that subject so I won't.

But you're right... most advocates simply won't listen to the science in any way shape or form. They know what their experience was and homeopathy/acupuncture/herbs/chiropractic cured their hives/cancer/joint pain/whatever and so they know it's for real.