Paul Offit, M.D. is well known in pediatric circles for his role in the development of a very important oral vaccine that we give to babies to prevent rotavirus infection (an acute, viral gastroenteritis that can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration in infants and toddlers). As the chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he is considered one of the world’s leading expert in vaccine-preventable childhood diseases. His last book — Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure — effectively used science to thoroughly debunk the myth that vaccines cause autism.
(If you are wondering why there are people — the same people, over and over again! — still trolling the internet and other media, trying to reignite a controversy that doesn’t exist, read Phil Plait’s observations here and here.)
Anyway, Dr. Offit has a new book out that explores complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). I haven’t read the book yet, so I’ll let Amazon describe Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine:
In Do You Believe in Magic?, medical expert Paul A. Offit, M.D., offers a scathing exposé of the alternative medicine industry, revealing how even though some popular therapies are remarkably helpful due to the placebo response, many of them are ineffective, expensive, and even deadly.
Dr. Offit reveals how alternative medicine—an unregulated industry under no legal obligation to prove its claims or admit its risks—can actually be harmful to our health.
Using dramatic real-life stories, Offit separates the sense from the nonsense, showing why any therapy—alternative or traditional—should be scrutinized. He also shows how some nontraditional methods can do a great deal of good, in some cases exceeding therapies offered by conventional practitioners.
An outspoken advocate for science-based health advocacy who is not afraid to take on media celebrities who promote alternative practices, Dr. Offit advises, “There’s no such thing as alternative medicine. There’s only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.”
I’ve emphasized the statement above because Dr. Offit tries to be evenhanded: even traditional medicine can be dangerous and cause serious injury and death. His critics will no doubt say that the risks of using alternative therapies are far less than traditional medicine. In pure numbers, they might be right. It still doesn’t make alternative medicine better — or even appropriate — for illnesses and disease, injuries, and pain, especially when there is no scientific data supporting the safety and efficacy of such therapies. That’s when CAM therapies are misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Writing on CNN.com, Dr. Offit offers this money quote:
Like conventional therapies, alternative remedies shouldn’t be given a free pass. They should be held to the same high standards of safety and efficacy. And where scientific studies don’t exist, we should insist that they be performed. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be susceptible to the worst kinds of quackery.
The Hippocratic Oath reminds physicians to do no harm:
I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.
It appears that Hippocrates also believed in magic:
I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract…
Read Dr. Paul Offit’s article on CNN.com here.
(Back pat: Brook McHugh, M.D.)
(Image: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul/freedigitalphotos.net)