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Close encounters of an alternative kind

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 04 November 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1163
  1. John Diamond, journalist
  1. London

    John Diamond, who has oral cancer, last week received the 2000 Health Watch Award for informing the public about reliable cancer treatments. This is an edited version of his acceptance speech.

    I must have written my standard piece about the nature of scientific endeavour and the intellectual folly that is alternative medicine some 100 times now for various papers. Each time I get equally standard replies from outraged alternativists.

    The last time I gave the piece its regular outing I got a letter, among the others, from an upset Liverpudlian. He was a practitioner in alternative medicine and “knew” it worked. And what's more, he said, he also knew that orthodox medicine simply didn't work. He didn't say it didn't work as well as doctors thought it did or as well as patients were suckered into believing it did by the grasping medical establishment. No, all orthodox medicine, he said, is a sham.

    Bored with whatever it was I was doing—probably writing yet another piece on the folly that is alternative medicine—I made the mistake of emailing him. “If orthodox medicine doesn't work,” I wrote, “how come life expectancy since the turn of the century has almost doubled?” His reply was the one that the alternativists usually give: life expectancy has increased only because infant mortality has decreased. Take all those dead babies out of the equation and your average Victorian with his little liver pills and tiger balm lived just as long as your 21st century pill popper.

    But life expectancy at 20 is also up, I wrote back. And at 30 and 40. A 50 year old with access to a reasonably sober general practitioner and a branch of Boots has a greater chance of living to 80 or 90 than his father or grandfather did. And these …

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