Monday, November 28, 2011

A Controversial Proposal about Complementary Medicine

A controversial proposal about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) will be the hot item today and tomorrow at the annual meeting of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Since the College regulates medical practice in Ontario, this isn't a Mickey Mouse discussion!

The College felt it had to create a policy because patients in Canada, like those in the U.S., were voting with their feet - and money - for CAM:
In increasing numbers, patients are looking to complementary medicine for answers to complex medical problems, strategies for improved wellness, or relief from acute medical symptoms. Patients may seek advice or treatment from Ontario physicians, or from other health care providers.
The proposed policy explicitly recognizes a patient's right to decide on the course they want to follow:
Patients are entitled to make treatment decisions and to set health care goals that accord with their own wishes, values and beliefs. This includes decisions to pursue or to refuse treatment, whether the treatment is conventional, or is CAM.
In my psychiatric practice, I heard more than once from patients that their other physicians pooh-poohed psychiatric treatment, especially psychotherapy, with terms like "magic," "witch doctor" and "rent-a-friend." From that experience, I especially liked the way the Ontario College insists that physicians conduct themselves with civility:
The College expects physicians to respect patients' treatment goals and medical decisions, even those with which physicians may disagree. In discussing these matters with patients, physicians should always state their best professional opinion about the goal or decision, but must refrain from expressing personal, non-clinical judgements or comments...about the therapeutic options, or the patient's health care goals or preferences unless those are explicitly requested by the patient.
The fact that many physicians and physician organizations complained bitterly that this standard would "muzzle" them demonstrates the need for making civility and common courtesy an ethical expectation!

The Canadian medical community was especially vehement in its criticism of the way the original draft discussed standards of evidence for CAM. In the eyes of the critics, the College was setting a lower bar of evidence for CAM compared to allopathic medicine. Here's the key passage from the original draft:
Reasonable expectations of efficacy must be supported by sound evidence. The type of evidence required will depend on the nature of the therapeutic option in question, including, the risks posed to patients, and the cost of the therapy. Those options that pose greater risks than a comparable allopathic treatment or that will impose a financial burden, based on the patient’s socio-economic status, must be supported by evidence obtained through a randomized clinical trial that has been peer-reviewed.
To my reading, this statement was entirely reasonable. It's a small percentage of medical practice that's based on rigorous randomized controlled trials. The term "sound evidence" requires explication, but it's the best we can claim for much of what we physicians do. The wording of the revised proposal being discussed in Toronto today makes it clear that the same standard of evidence should be applied to "conventional" and "complementary" medicine. But to my reading it retains an appropriately skeptical view of just how solid the evidence is for what is conventionally done:
Any CAM therapeutic option that is recommended by physicians must be informed by evidence and science, and it must:

• Have a logical connection to the diagnosis reached;
• Have a reasonable expectation of remedying or alleviating the patient's health
condition or symptoms; and
• Possess a favourable risk/benefit ratio based on: the merits of the option, the potential interactions with other treatments the patient is receiving, the conventional therapeutic options available and other considerations the physician deems relevant.

Physicians must never recommend therapeutic options that have been proven to be ineffective through scientific study.
I applied these standards to myself with regard to my treatment many years ago of a patient with trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling). The literature recommended medication and stated that hypnosis did not work. But my patient didn't want to take medication, and liked the concept of hypnosis, despite what the literature said. We agreed that it seemed relatively risk free, and tried it.

It worked. I didn't see the patient again until 20 years later, when the symptoms recurred. A brief repeat of the hypnosis did the job again. (For a more extensive discussion of the case, see here.) I believe the Ontario College would conclude that the treatment met their standards. I had done the hypnosis, but I hadn't recommended it!

If I were in Toronto today I'd vote to approve the College's proposal. Without demeaning "conventional" medicine it implicitly recognizes the degree to which conventional practice rests on uncertainties. And without using the term "placebo effect" it allows for the provision of interventions - "conventional" and "complementary" - that may well derive their efficacy from the placebo mechanism.

(The proposal being considered by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons can be found on pages 248-275 of the agenda for today's meeting. If you're especially interested in the topic, you can read the original policy statement draft here. A summary of the Canadian Medical Association's criticism of the original draft is here.)


Douglas Olsen said...

I think Tolstoy understood at least one aspect of CAM’s appeal.

“Their usefulness did not depend on making the patient swallow substances for the most part harmful. . . but they were useful, necessary, and indispensable because they satisfied the moral cravings of the patient and those who loved her and that is why there are, and always will be, pseudo-healers, wise women, homeopaths, and allopaths. They satisfied that eternal human need for hope of relief, for sympathy, and that something should be done, which is felt by those who are suffering.”
War and Peace Chp. 9 about Natasha’s doctors when she was very ill.

Jim Sabin said...

Hello Douglas -

What a wonderful passage from War and Peace! Tolstoy had a marvellous understanding of what we talk about in more prosaic terms as "placebo effect." His story The Death of Ivan Ilyich is often used in medical teaching to convey the power of touch, care, and presence to the sick person.

When I was in medical school an "old timer" (almost certainly younger than I am now) told me how physicians in the era before antibiotics and other basic, and effective, medications, knew that for many people and many conditions "tincture of time" was a powerful remedy. I'm sure that skillful practitioners have always understood the "eternal human need for hope of relief, for sympathy, and that something should be done."

Again, thank you for the passage from Tolstoy!