The Temporary Truths of Medicine

I once wrote a prescription for echinacea and golden seal for a patient suffering from an acute viral infection. The pharmacist told my patient, “These aren’t medications. I can’t do anything with this; it isn’t a real prescription.” Shaken by the pharmacist’s implication that her doctor wasn’t practicing “real medicine”, my patient called me and I phoned the pharmacist who asked me not to refer my patients to her with “non-medical substances written as prescriptions.” She further explained, “I have those products on the shelf because I have to. I don’t own the store. But I only deal in real medicine for which scientific evidence exists to prove efficacy . . .” This pharmacist was blinded by her misplaced faith in science. In so doing, she had become a bigot. Bigots are people with closed minds who are convinced they have found the only truth and that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is wrong.

I graduated from medical school over twenty years ago. With the exception of the lessons on anatomy and some of the physiology, nothing I learned back then is of any significant use to me today in caring for my patients. The half-life of medical therapeutic knowledge is about five years. This means that in five years, one half of all that medicine now accepts as being true and correct, when treating illness, will be outdated and presumptively wrong! In ten years, three quarters of all such knowledge will be obsolete and perhaps considered harmful.

To illustrate how medical truths change, consider the following examples. Less than ten years ago, any physician who prescribed beta-blockers (medications which slow the beating of the heart) to patients with congestive heart failure was asking to be sued. Today, any physician who doesn’t prescribe the same medicine to the same patients is likely to be sued! Now, let’s consider the recent reversal of position on estrogen and progesterone (the female hormones) doctors prescribe after menopause. Once touted as preventing heart attacks in menopausal women, they are now fingered as the culprits that actually increase heart attacks!

Despite this evidence of fallibility, most medical experts continue to dogmatically proclaim that they know what they are teaching is true and based on scientific fact. Is it at all surprising that people have come to distrust the imperatives trumpeted by medical science?

The Search for Truth

Those who search for the truth in questions of health are called researchers. There are two major fields of health research:

Both fields are legitimate areas for research. Truth will emerge from both, but there is one important difference between the two fields. In the lab, scientists most often work on theories that probe the unknown hoping to find new truths. When they discover some important new knowledge, it is eventually used to treat disease in a new and novel manner. In the examination of folk and traditional medicine, the researcher starts from the premise that he is investigating the how and why of some intervention that has already proven for centuries that it successfully treats disease. These investigators, not unlike archeologists, are attempting to unearth old truths.

Which one of the two areas of research is likely to produce truth that can be trusted – truth that will not change? I certainly do not ignore medical discoveries made in the laboratory; however, I am far more skeptical of such findings than I am of the discoveries that emerge from the methodical examination of the methods and products of folk and traditional medicine. Despite my training in allopathic medicine, I have chosen to place my faith first in truths that have withstood the test of time and come down to us through centuries of therapeutic use. Such truths, born in the mists of the past and tested throughout all the generations of time, are likely to remain unchanged, whereas, the truths that emerge from the laboratories have been proven to be temporary at best.

I feel sorry for that pharmacist who has chosen the other way. I also feel sorry for those patients who look to her for advice and guidance in caring for their health. It is out of a sincere desire not to mislead that I have ventured outside the boundaries within which most allopathic physicians chose to remain. My experience with the investigation of the Mangosteen has been exhilarating and enlightening. Researching the promise of the enormous health benefits this amazing folk medicine provides is far more exciting than anything I have ever done besides being a medical volunteer in the third world.

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