Let Us All Praise Medical Woo

DrRich | June 10th, 2010 - 6:37 am


It is quite popular for certain medical bloggers who count themselves as scientifically sophisticated to disparage so-called “alternative medicine.”

Indeed, some have built entire websites to demonstrate (Penn-and-Teller-like) that various forms of alternative medicine – such as homeopathy, therapeutic touch, the medical application of crystals, Reiki, naturopathy, water therapy, bio-photons, mindfulness training, energy healing and a host of others – are completely devoid of any scientific merit whatsoever; are pablum for the uneducated masses; are, in short, irreducibly and irredeemably woo.

These same bloggers are scandalized into virtual apoplexy by the fact that the NIH has funded an entire section to “study” alternative medicine, and worse, that some of the most respected university medical centers in the land now seem to have embraced alternative medicine, and have established well-funded and heavily-marketed “Centers for Integrative Medicine,” or other similarly-named op-centers for pushing medically suspect alternative “services”.

(An astounding list of prestigious institutions of medical science now sporting Centers of Woo is maintained by Orec.)

Until quite recently, DrRich counted himself among the stalwarts of scientific strict constructionism. He was truly dismayed that the NIH and some of our most well-regarded academic centers (under the guise of wanting to conduct objective “studies” of alternative medicine) have lent an aura of respectability and legitimacy to numerous bizarre ideas and fraudulent claims masquerading as legitimate medical practices. To DrRich, such developments were yet another clear and unmistakable sign of the End Times.

Furthermore, DrRich (a well-known paranoid when it comes to covert rationing) saw a more sinister advantage to the official and well-publicized support that government-funded institutions were giving to the alternative medicine movement. Namely, fostering a widespread impression among the unwashed rabble that alternative medicine is at least somewhat worthwhile (and plenty respectable) advances the cause of covert rationing. That is, the more you can entice people to seek their diagnoses and their cures from the alternative medicine universe, the less money they will soak up from the real healthcare system. With luck, real diagnoses can be delayed and real therapy put off until it’s far too late to achieve a useful outcome by more traditional (and far more expensive) medical means.

So, for several years alternative medicine was seen by DrRich pretty much as it is seen by all of the anti-woo crowd – as an unvarnished evil.

But in recent days the scales have fallen from DrRich’s eyes. He now realizes he was sadly mistaken. Rather than a term of opprobrium, “alternative medicine” may actually be our most direct road to salvation. Indeed, DrRich thinks that far from damning alternative medicine, we should be blessing it, nurturing it, worrying over it, in the precise manner that a mountaineer trapped in a deadly blizzard would worry over the last embers of his dying campfire.

What turned the tide for DrRich was a recent report, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimating that in 2007, Americans spent a whopping $34 billion on alternative medicine. That’s $34 billion, for healthcare (in a manner of speaking), out of their own pockets.

The implications of this report should be highly encouraging to those of us who lament the impending creation of a monolithic government-controlled healthcare system, and who have been struggling to imagine ways of circumventing the legions of stone-witted, soul-eating bureaucrats now being prepared (Sauron-like) to descend upon us all, doctor and patient alike.

This is why DrRich has urged primary care physicians to break the bonds of servitude while they still can, strike out on their own, and set up practices in which they are paid directly by their patients. Such arrangements are the only practical means by which individual doctors and patients can immediately restore the broken doctor-patient relationship, and place themselves within a protective enclosure impervious to the slavering soul-eaters.

One reason so few primary care doctors have taken this route (choosing instead to retire, to change careers and become deep-sea fishermen, or simply to give up and become abject minions of the forces of evil) is that they do not believe patients will actually pay them out of their own pockets.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this new report from the CDCP demonstrates once and for all that Americans will, indeed, pay billions of dollars from their own pockets for their own healthcare – even the varieties of healthcare whose only possible benefits are mediated by the placebo effect. DrRich believes that many of the people buying homeopathic remedies are doing so less because they believe homeopathy works, and more because they feel abandoned by the healthcare system and by their own doctors, and realize they have to do SOMETHING. The CDCP report, in DrRich’s estimation, reflects the magnitude of the American public’s pent-up demand for doctors whose chief concern is for them, and not for the demands of third party payers.

Perhaps more importantly, this new report implies that it may be somewhat more difficult than DrRich has thought for the government to outlaw private-sector healthcare activities. As DrRich has carefully documented, a government-controlled healthcare system will require the authorities to make it illegal for Americans to spend their own money on their own healthcare, thus rendering direct-pay medical practices illegal, and putting the final stake into the heart of the doctor-patient relationship.

But the rousing success of the alternative medicine universe will make such laws difficult to enact.

To see why, consider just how encouraging this new CDCP report must be to the third-party payers. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the government (and the academy) to legitimize alternative medicine, Americans are spending $34 billion a year on woo. This amount indicates tremendous savings for the traditional healthcare system. The actual amount saved, of course, is impossible to measure, but has to be far greater than just $34 billion. Some substantial proportion of patients spending money on alternative medicine, had they chosen traditional medical care instead, might have consumed expensive diagnostic tests, surgery, expensive prescription drugs, and other legitimate medical services. Furthermore, those legitimate medical services (as legitimate medical services are wont to do) often would have generated even more expenditures – by extending the survival of patients with chronic diseases, by identifying the need for even more diagnostic and therapeutic services, and by causing side effects requiring expensive remedies. (While alternative medicine is famous for being useless, it is also most often pretty harmless, and tends to produce relatively few serious side effects – except, of course, for causing a delay in making actual diagnoses and administering useful therapy, but if you’re a payer, that’s a good thing.) So the amount of money the payers actually save thanks to alternative medicine must be some multiplier of the amount spent on the alternative medicine itself.

What this means is that payers (which, let’s face it, will soon mean the government) will be loathe to do anything that might discourage the success and growth of alternative medicine, and this fact alone may stop them from making it illegal for Americans to pay for their own healthcare.

Still, we musn’t be too sanguine about these prospects. Under a government-controlled system, the imperative to control every aspect of healthcare (in the name of fairness) will be very, very strong, and it will be very tempting to the Feds to declare at least some varieties of alternative medicine to be covered services.

But the alternative medicine establishment (bless it) will be largely impervious to government control. Practitioners of alternative medicine are expert at designing vague products and services whose techniques, theories, processes and protocols are fluid, nebulous and ill-defined. So if the Feds declare, say, homeopathy and therapeutic touch to be legitimate, covered services under the Fed’s health plan, why, the alternative medicine gurus will simply come up with entirely new forms of alternative medicine, specifically to remain outside the government plan. (New varieties of alternative medicine already appear with dizzying speed, and can be invented at will. No bureaucracy could ever hope to keep up.)

Therefore, as long as the central authorities depend on alternative medicine as a robust avenue for covertly rationing healthcare, the purveyors of woo will always be able to flourish outside the real healthcare system. And this, DrRich believes, represents the ultimate value of woo, and establishes why we should all be encouraging and nurturing woo instead of disparaging it.

DrRich has speculated on various black market approaches to healthcare which could be attempted by American doctors (and investors) should restrictive, government-controlled healthcare become a reality. But now, thanks to the success of alternative medicine, there is a direct and straightforward path for American primary care physicians to re-establish a form of now-long-gone “traditional” American medicine, replete with a robust doctor-patient relationship, right out in the open – the kind of practice where patients pay their doctors themselves.

Simply declare this kind of practice to be a new variety of alternative medicine. Likely, PCPs will need to come up with a new name for it (such as “Therapeutic Allopathy,” or “Reciprocal Duty Therapeutics”), and perhaps invent some new terminology to describe what they’re doing. But what’s clear is what they will be doing is so fundamentally different from what PCPs will be doing under government-controlled healthcare as to be unrecognizable, and nobody will be able to argue it’s not alternative medicine. In fact, it will seem nearly as wierd as Reiki.

The success of medical woo, in other words, can provide American doctors who want to practice the kind of medicine they should be practicing with the cover they need to do so. And this is why we must support medical woo, and celebrate its continued growth and success.


Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

Now on Kindle!

4 Responses to “Let Us All Praise Medical Woo”

  1. [...] of The Covert Rationing Blog has a tongue in cheek post about encouraging, developing, and nurturing the practitioners of Woo. Be very careful when Dr.Rich is being this diabolical; he’ll convince you that you need to [...]

  2. Rational Exhuberance says:

    *Sigh* While I don’t cotton to alt med, the overripe condescension and overwrought prose of practitioner-bloggers such as Dr.Rich and Orac [the typoed "Orec" above] are perhaps even more annoying and affected. Dr.Rich and Orac are both terrible writers. Where is my blue pencil? Guys, vocabulary alone does not overcome the undeniable whiff of envy and loneliness still emanating from awkward teen years. Move on and leave the urge to get back at the cool kids behind. You are cool yourself now, so act and write like it, please. This studied snarkiness is beneath you and mighty tedious to the mentally healthy.

    • DrRich says:


      As one who can barely remember his 50′s, I would love to believe that I am still wrapped up in leftover teen angst. One thing you and I can agree upon, however, is that envy is a terrible thing.


  3. Rational Exhuberance says:

    Writing in the third person? Really, Dr. Rich? Step away from the cutsey Victorian mannerisms.

    Dr.Rich’s catechism of cliche:

    “scandalized into virtual apoplexy;” “abject minions of the forces of evil;” “we musn’t be too sanguine;” “yet another clear and unmistakable sign of the End Times;” “imagine ways of circumventing the legions of stone-witted, soul-eating bureaucrats now being prepared (Sauron-like) to descend;” “break the bonds of servitude.”

    Stop with the word salad from bad teen fantasy lit.


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