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Complementary/Alternative Medicine and the Media

Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, FRCP

The recent House of Lords report on complementary/ alternative medicine (CAM) stated that the media have an undue influence over CAM. I agree. For what its worth, here are some random thoughts and experiences on the often-troubled relationship between CAM and the media [1].

Many CAM enthusiasts feel that the media tend to report negatively about this area. To test this hypothesis, we collected 'medical' newspaper articles during a predefined period from German and British broadsheets [2]. The surprising results suggested that the UK coverage of CAM was much more positive than either the UK coverage of mainstream medicine or the German coverage of CAM. The claim that the UK press works against CAM is therefore not based on evidence; in fact, the opposite seems to be the case.

Is this a bad thing? At a time when we hear so much negative news, it could be delightful to read and hear positive reports. This is entirely true provided that the media do not mislead the public. I have recently read three different full-page articles in three different languages on the subject of Bach Flower Remedies. Their tone was strikingly similar and the conclusions were essentially that these remedies firstly defy scientific testing, secondly are totally safe, and thirdly they therefore must be worth a try. Assumption number one is obviously wrong [3], but here I would like to take issue with the third point. If something did not work and still cost a considerable amount of money, I see very good reasons not to promote it. Would you buy a car that is safe but does not work? Why is the press's attitude so often different with regard to cars than to medicine?

One might argue that spending money needlessly does not really amount to harm; after all, people do so because they want to. Let us look at the potential of health-related harm. In a regular column of The Sunday Times entitled 'What's the alternative' (to name just one of many similar columns), we find no end of potentially harmful advice. For example, the herbal remedy skullcap was recently recommended to relax young children during a long-haul flight [4]. In the light of the fact that skullcap has long been known to be hepatotoxic, and a recent case of acute liver failure and death associated with this herb [5], mothers might think twice before administering skullcap to their children.

One problem, I believe, is that journalists rarely do enough background research and often lack full medical understanding of the issues they write about. Another problem that I often encounter, with an increasing sense of frustration, is that journalists conduct (telephone) interviews without a real interest in my views. All they seem to want is a quote that fits into their story. A recent experience of this kind was with The Daily Mail. Their science correspondent wanted to know my views on a brand new US study apparently demonstrating dangerous amounts of colchicine in ginkgo supplements. As I had not yet seen this article, I declined from commenting on it. We then talked about herbal medicine use during pregnancy in general. I pointed out that, in mainstream medicine, we had the thalidomide disaster, which brought about stringent control and regulation. In herbal medicine, I said, we still have no adequate regulation and thus cannot be sure that a similar disaster could be prevented. The quote that I was surprised to read the following day seemed to relate to ginkgo and read, "We could see another catastrophe like thalidomide." [6] Is this a mild distortion or an overt misquote? They say that the only thing that is worse than being (mis)quoted by the press, is not being quoted at all; there are days when I am not entirely sure.

But do not get me wrong: I am far from implying that journalists are members of some sort of a fraternity of evildoers. I repeatedly have the pleasure of lecturing to them and have always been delighted to find that they are charming people simply struggling to make a living.

Thus, they want to sell their goods and it seems obvious that a juicy story sells better than the scientist's standard and boring conclusion 'we need more research'. Yet, there must be an acceptable compromise between sensationalism and accurate information.

For a start, it probably would help to appreciate that interests differ and range from selling stories to improving health care. The next step could be that we all should realise what incredible power and responsibility we have. This power should make us wary of doing harm and the responsibility should motivate us always to look at more than one side of the coin.

References

  1. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. Complementary and Altemative Medicine, 6th Report, 1999-2000. London: Stationery Office, 2000.
  2. Ernst E, Weihmayr T. UK and German media differ over complementary medicine. BMJ 2000; 321: 707.
  3. Armstrong NC, Ernst E. A randomised; double-blind; placebo-controlled trial of Bach Flower Remedy. Perfusion 1999; 11: 440-6.
  4. Clark S. What's the alternative. The Sunday Times (Style Magazine), 22 April 2001, p. 43.
  5. Hullar TE. Herbal toxicity and fatal hepatic failure. Am J Med 1999; 106:267-8.
  6. Chapman J. Naturally dangerous. The Daily Mail, 29 August 2001, p. 5.

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Edzard Ernst holds the Laing Chair in Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter and is editor-in-chief of Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT), a review journal that aims to present the evidence on "complementary and alternative medicine" in an analytical and impartial manner. His books include Homeopathy: A Critical Appraisal and The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This article was reprinted with permission from the December 2001 issue of FACT.

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This article was posted on October 11, 2002.