What We Can Learn from Alternative Medicine Practitioners November 9, 2015

What We Can Learn from Alternative Medicine Practitioners

Guy P. Harrison is the author of several popular books about atheism including 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (teaching us how to rebut them), 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True, and 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian.

His latest, only a slight departure from his previous works, is called Good Thinking: What You Need to Know to be Smarter, Safer, Wealthier, and Wiser (Prometheus Books, 2015):

In the excerpt below, Harrison talks about what we can (seriously) learn from people who practice alternative medicine:


Because defenders of alternative medicine almost always bring it up, it is necessary to address the imperfect nature of modern medical science. There is plenty of truth in the accusations alternative-medicine fans routinely hurl at science-based medicine. No doctor gets every diagnosis and treatment correct. Doctors make mistakes. Some doctors are incompetent. Some are unethical. Medicine that helps many patients may hurt others — possibly even kill them. There are numerous healthcare challenges and plenty remaining mysteries of the human brain and body that await solutions. Mental-health treatment, for example, is far behind other areas of healthcare. And, yes, some medical research seems far more concerned with profit than with saving human lives. But while all of this is true, none of it proves that a single alternative-medicine product or treatment works. Only the scientific process can do that.

Pointing to greed and failure in the medical-science industry does not make the greed and failure in the alternative-medicine industry go away. Science-based healthcare is highly regulated and tightly tied to scientific testing yet still has many problems. So why would this give anyone reason to feel better about alternative-medicine products and therapies that are mostly unregulated and loosely, if at all, tied to scientific testing? It makes little sense to run into the open arms of the alternative-medicine industry when it has all the same problems and more. Science-based healthcare will always be less than perfect so long as imperfect people do it. But even so, it is still immeasurably better than what we find out beyond its borders, where anything goes.


Some critics view all of alternative medicine as nothing more than a vast swamp of lies and stupidity. I don’t see it that way. I am convinced that modern science-based healthcare professionals can learn a lot from the people who make a living from homeopathy, chiropractic care, acupuncture, therapeutic touch, faith healing, and so on. First and foremost, they seem to understand the human aspect of healthcare far better than most medical doctors. Their stores, clinics, and offices tend to be warm and inviting. Look no farther than the waiting rooms. Calming music and incense fill the air. Attractive artwork on the walls. Living plants in the corners. The typical waiting room of a doctor with a science-based practice, however, will have a few old magazines, maybe an aquarium with a couple of sad goldfish, and that’s it. One tends to be warm and hopeful; the other, cold and creepy. It’s soothing vs. scary.

A year or so ago, my daughter had a minor problem and her regular pediatrician was away, so I took her to see someone else based on a referral. Within two seconds of walking into the new office, I sensed that something was off. The vibe was all wrong and my shadow brain went to red alert. The atmosphere was… way too nice and upbeat. This can’t be a doctor’s office, I thought to myself. It had the look and feel of a place one might actually want to go to and spend time. While I was wondering if we had wandered into a high-end jewelry store, the extraordinarily upbeat receptionist found my daughter’s name in her appointments file, so we sat down. But I was still uneasy. I looked around, straining to make sense of my suspicions. And then I saw it: shelves in an adjacent room stacked high with herbal supplements. A dead giveaway. Of course, now it all made sense. The soothing music, pleasant smell, happy people, and likely quack products for sale on the side could only add up to one thing: we were inside a den of medical madness. I politely explained to the bubbly receptionist that something suddenly came up, grabbed my daughter, and escaped. Out of curiosity, later I looked up the place and, I was right, it was a “wellness center” specializing in holistic chiropractic, acupuncture, and reflexology.

I have explored many other alternative-medicine establishments over the years, not by accident but on purpose, and can’t remember many that felt unwelcoming. I also cannot recall a single alternative-medicine practitioner I have interacted with who was not at least above average at talking and listening. One of the qualities many people cite in their defense of alternative medicine is that they are treated better in the customer-service sense. I don’t doubt it. Alternative-medicine professionals seem to have more time for conversation than the typical doctor does. One can easily imagine how positive office environments and exceptional people skills work to maximize both the patient experience and the placebo effect. In fairness to science-based healthcare, most doctors don’t rush their patients and neglect to ask relevant questions simply because they don’t know any better or don’t care. In most cases, they just don’t have the time, because they are busy doing the important work of actually healing people and saving lives. But why not inject more humanity into the process?

Companies and governments invest billions of dollars into medical research every year in order to develop new drugs, invent new technology, and make discoveries. But some low-hanging fruit has been missed toward easing suffering and extending lives. It’s possible, for example, that structuring healthcare systems to give doctors a little more time with patients and make simple improvements to the patient experience might significantly improve health outcomes. Adopting some of the customer-service techniques used so effectively by the alternative-medicine industry could do wonders. No one should have to feel like she is a car in for an oil change rather than a feeling and vulnerable human being in need of help. I suspect alternative medicine reins in and keeps many of its customers because its practitioners do a good job of listening to patients and making them feel like they matter. Imagine if healthcare systems everywhere made it a priority for doctors and nurses to give their patients more time and more attention. What would happen if science-based medicine stole the best pages out of alternative medicine’s playbook? We might have a human-centered process coupled with medicines and treatments that work. The best of both worlds. How much suffering might that ease? How many more lives might that save?

Good Thinking is now available online and in bookstores.

Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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