Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
Recent news reports about the decisions Steve Jobs made regarding his cancer treatment raise a recurring question that is timely and relevant for millions of people seeking to treat serious or life-threatening diseases: What is the role for complementary and alternative medicine?
All decisions about health care and health promotion should be guided by the best available evidence. In the case of serious diseases, it is important to consider, separately, two aspects of care: 1) treating the disease and 2) ameliorating symptoms or side effects, or taking steps to improve quality of life and well-being.
When making treatment decisions, unproven “alternative medicine” approaches should not replace conventional medical care approaches known to be useful or helpful. Simply put, the evidence is not there.
However, it is important to acknowledge that working toward a cure is only one part of dealing with serious illness, and conventional treatments don’t always meet all the needs of each individual. Quality of life and, for many, a sense of active participation and empowerment are also important. This is where the discussion around complementary approaches becomes more relevant. There is promise in some complementary approaches in alleviating the symptoms and side effects. For example, people with cancer may use acupuncture to relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea. Or patients may find relief for sleeplessness or anxiety through meditation. They are not cures, but these are areas where complementary approaches can make a real difference in people’s lives.
The current discussion around use of complementary practices underscores why it is vital to bring science to the conversation. Patients and families need quality information to help them make informed treatment choices and answer the fundamental questions: How might it help? Can it cause harm? Rigorous science is needed to help providers and health policymakers determine how to create better and more integrated patient-centered approaches to treatment and care.