AltMed linked to poor cancer outcomes

The alternative medicine researcher, Edzard Ernst, has brought to our attention a recent study in South Korea of higher mortality rates of cancer patients who use alternative medicines.

Yun YH et al evaluated the influence of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the survival and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) of terminal cancer patients.

In a 15 month study of 481 terminally ill patients, prayer therapies were linked to a low survival rate, worse cognitive functioning and fatigue were reported among CAM users than non-users and overall, CAM users reported significantly a worsened health-related quality of life.

These negative results of this study are not in isolation. A 2003 Norwegian study of cancer patients with an 8 year follow up, found a death rates of 79% for Alternative Medicine compared to 65% of the non-users.

In 2004, a study appeared in The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association that collated obituaries of male chiropractors published in North American sources and suggested that they had a mean life span of 73.4-74.2 years compared to a medical doctor average of 81.5 years and a life expectancy of 76.9 years for the general male population.

We should be mindful not to presume that these studies demonstrate a causal link between CAM and poor survival outcomes. It may be that the cancer patients with the poorest prognoses opt for CAM or that the lives of younger chiropractors are more likely to be celebrated with obituaries. Clearly these stark differences in mortality warrant more comprehensive research.

Almost all health insurance providers in Australia include alternative medicine modalities in their policy coverage. These insurers have an excellent body of data on the usage of alternative medicine by the Australian community. The time has come for them to make this information available to the federal government, so that a detailed study of alternative health and mortality can be made by epidemiologists and other health researchers.

We occasionally hear of tragedies of alternative medicine that bring the practitioners to the Coroner’s court. For every clear cut case like this we suspect that there are many more instances of lives shortened by delayed diagnosis, inappropriate treatment or counteraction of conventional treatment with a herbal preparation. Alternative practitioners frequently give their patients unwarranted hope in their treatments while decrying the supposed dangers of evidence based treatments. A significant portion of alternative treatments are funded by the Federal Government through the Private Health Insurance Rebate, so the Australian community deserves to know which modalities and which practitioners are contributing to poor health outcomes.