Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Alan Bennett and homeopathy

I bow to no-one in my admiration for the writing of Alan Bennett. It probably helps that he's a Yorkshireman, albeit from the evil that is Leeds. I've recently been re-reading his book 'Untold Stories'. In a piece entitled 'An average rock bun', Bennett writes about his experience with cancer of the colon, the approximate size of the tumour lending the piece its title. This is typically modest, unassuming and moving stuff, but what I found most interesting was Bennett's experience with homeopathy.

After an operation to remove the tumour, Bennett is due to begin precautionary chemotherapy. At the same time, he explores some alternative treatments, and after talking to his GP, decides that homeopathy might help. I'm somewhat ambivalent about this. After all, as long as Bennett continues with the chemotherapy, a homeopathic treatment can't do any harm, and even if it only has a placebo effect it might still help him to feel better. What is disgraceful is what happens when Bennett visits a "reputable complementary health clinic in Harley Street". He manages to get an appointment at 7am, and sees the complementary therapist. He explains that he has already decided on a course of chemotherapy, and wants to take homeopathic treatments alongside it.

As Bennett writes: "He proceeded to pour scorn on chemotherapy, the benefits of which he said were unproven, and when I didn't budge, rather sulkily conducted some finger-tip tests, which I took to be to do with the homeopathy, but done in such a perfunctory fashion I'm not sure he thought much of the point of this either. People kept coming in with whom he chatted, and throughout treated the business so casually and with such a disregard for my predicament, and presumed agony of mind, that it reminded me of the arrogant and unconcerned conventional doctors one used to come across thirty years ago".

Not very nice, is it? But that's not all. Bennett agreed to have some blood tests done by the complementary clinic. He then received a letter from the therapist, telling him that his blood test results were 'a lot worse than we thought' and that 'without sorting this out, your chances are much less than 50-50'. The cure was a course of vitamin injections. As a playwrite, writer and sometime art historian, Bennett is probably not up to speed with the latest medical research, but he's certainly no fool. As he writes, "All I saw was a barefaced attempt at medical blackmail and a doctor trying to panic me into using his clinic's doubtless expensive facilities". Bennett did not go back to the clinic.

So here we have an example of a homeopathic practitioner rubbishing proven therapies, and suggesting that they be replaced with homeopathy, and then playing on the fears of the patient to get them to take an expensive course of vitamin injections. This is extremely irresponsible and dangerous. Having complementary therapies used beside conventional treatments, under the supervision of a GP, is one thing. Advocating vitamin injections and magic water as a replacement for chemotherapy is a very different thing. Regardless of the science, complementary and alternative medicine needs to get its ethical house in order as a matter of urgency. Then again, the first question they would have to resolve is how you can ethically sell bullshit to people, so you can see why this would be a difficult enterprise.

Edit: If anyone knows what this is doing translated into German here, I'd be interested.

12 comments:

George Walks said...

As professionally and politely done as it is effective in its point.

Nice

Paul Wilson said...

George:

Thanks for that, although I think I lost some of the politeness towards the end...

Weirdly, this piece appears to have been translated into German:

http://largesthealth.blogspot.com/2007/09/verhckern-sieiso-8859-1qhandse4ge-alan.html

Not sure what's going on there.

Mich said...

That German translation is a bit worrying. You might want to consider hitting the "flag blog" button at the top of the offending blog's web page to notify Blogger.

How in the world did you discover the German version?

Paul Wilson said...

I'm not too bothered about it being in German. As far as I'm concerned anyone can have it, as long as they credit me. There is a link to hawk/handsaw at the bottom of the German page, so fair enough. I just don't have any idea what it might be doing there, not reading German and all.

I found it via a Technorati search, http://technorati.com/

Dana Ullman, MPH said...

In ALL due respect, doing "finger prick tests" has NOTHING to do with homeopathy, nor does prescribing nutritional supplements. This practitioner may also be prescribing homeopathic medicines, but this doesn't mean that s/he is a homeopath. I cannot help but sense that you are in deep confusion on what is and isn't homeopathic medicine. For details, see www.homeopathic.com and an article that explains it:
http://www.homeopathic.com/articles/view,98

Paul Wilson said...

Oh, I think I'm reasonably au fait with what homeopathy is. Although it's interesting that homeopaths seem to spend quite a bit of time bickering amongst themselves about what it is.

Anyway, I can agree that vitamin injections are not homeopathy. As for the fingertip test, I've no idea what that is about. Alan Bennett says in his book that he took the tests to be to do with homeopathy. Apparently the alternative practitioner didn't explain what they were supposed to be for. I would be interested to know what those tests were supposed to do, if you can enlighten me.

As for the comment that "This practitioner may also be prescribing homeopathic medicines, but this doesn't mean that s/he is a homeopath", I disagree. If someone is giving people homeopathic medicines, then I would say that they're a homeopath, whatever quackery they also practise. Remember, this is a 'reputable complementary health clinic in Harley Street'.

Thanks for the link though. I'll try to look at it at some point.

Shinga said...

Paul, does this mean that you have a new sentence for your CV:

"My articles have been syndicated in other languages".

Paul Wilson said...

Shinga:

Hm, yes, hadn't thought of it like that...then again, I worked in Canada for my PhD and have several abstracts translated into French...

Anonymous said...

Another thing on the translation - it's very clearly a machine translation, as are all the other articles posted on that blog, all copied from various other places. And it's full of very dody Viagra ads and such. The whole thing seems very suspicious to me.

Tom said...

This piece doesn't really need any further comment, but I wonder if any medical readers would like to comment on the likely consequences if a GP or consultant were to inform a cancer patient by letter that "your chances are much less than 50-50"??

ps Spookily in the context of the mysterious German translation, the text beneath the box in which I'm typing this informs me that "Sie k├Ânnen HTML-Tags verwenden"...

Anonymous said...

"Edit: If anyone knows what this is doing translated into German here, I'd be interested."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spam_blog

Paul Wilson said...

Aha! Thanks for that. It does seem to fit the bill, doesn't it?