How Scientific Is Modern Medicine?

Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a reporter what he thought about Western civilization, and in light of the uncivilized treatment by the British government of his nonviolent actions, he immediately replied, “Western civilization? Yes, it is a good idea.” Likewise, if he were asked what he thought about “scientific medicine,” he would probably have replied in a similar manner.

The idea of scientific medicine is a great one, but is modern medicine truly, or even adequately, “scientific”?

Modern medicine uses the double-blind and placebo-controlled trial as the gold standard by which effectiveness of a treatment is determined. On the surface, this scientific method is very reasonable. However, serious problems in these studies are widely acknowledged by academics but remain unknown to the general public. Fundamental questions about the meaning of the word “efficacy” are rarely, if ever, raised.

For instance, just because a drug treatment seems to eliminate a speci- fic symptom doesn’t necessarily mean that it is “effective.” In fact, getting rid of a specific symptom can be the bad news. Aspirin may lower your fever, but physiologists recognize that fever is an important defense of the body in its efforts to fight infection. Painkilling drugs may eliminate the acute pain in the short term, but because these drugs do not influence the underlying cause of the discomfort, they do not really heal the person, and worse, they can lead to physical and psychological dependency, addiction, tolerance, and increased heart disease. Sleep-inducing drugs may lead you to fall asleep, but they do not lead to refreshed sleep, and these drugs ultimately tend to aggravate the cycle of insomnia and fatigue. Uncertainty remains for the long-term safety and efficacy of many modern drugs for common ailments, despite the high hopes and sincere expectations from the medical community and the rest of us for greater certainty.

The bottom line to scientific research is that a scientist can set up a study that shows the guise of efficacy. In other words, a drug may be effective for a very limited period of time and afterwards cause various serious symptoms. For example, a very popular anti-anxiety drug called Xanax was shown to reduce panic attacks during a two-month experiment, but once the person tries to reduce or stop the medication, panic attacks can increase 300-400 percent ( Consumer Reports , 1993).Would as many patients take this drug if they knew this fact, and based on what standard can anyone honestly say that this drug is “effective”?

To get FDA approval to market a drug, most of the studies for psychiatric conditions last only six weeks (Angell, 2004, 112). In view of the fact that most people take anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medicines for many years, how can anyone consider these short-term studies scientifically valid? What is so little known and so sobering is that research to date has found that placebos were 80 percent as effective as the drugs-with fewer side effects (Angell, 2004, 113).

Marcia Angell,MD, author of the powerful book The Truth about Drug Companies , said it plainly and directly: “Trials can be rigged in a dozen ways, and it happens all the time” (Angell, 2004, 95). Conventional drugs used today are so new that there is very little longterm research on them. There are good reasons why the vast majority of modern drugs that were used just a couple of decades ago are not prescribed any more: They don’t work as well as previously assumed, and/or they cause more harm than good.

Sadly and strangely, physicians do not see that there is something fundamentally wrong with the present medical model. Instead, once an old drug is found to be ineffective or dangerous, doctors and drug companies simply assert the “scientifically proven” efficacy of a new drug. Despite this recurrent pattern, doctors are prescribing drugs at record-breaking rates:

  • In 2005 the volume of prescription drugs sold in the U.S. was equal to 12.3 drugs for every man, woman, and child in that year alone (compared to 1994, when 7.9 prescription drugs per year were on average purchased by every American). (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006)

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