Why does your doctor hate alternative medicine?

Monday, May 2, 2011 07:01 ET

Why does your doctor hate alternative medicine?

That’s the question TV shows and outspoken celebs keep asking, but the truth is far more complicated than that

Dr. Oz

On his popular TV show last week, Dr. Mehmet Oz ran a segment titled “Why Your Doctor Is Afraid of Alternative Medicine.” The show pitted Oz (who has found himself under fire for dubious doctoring) against Dr. Steve Novella, a Yale neurologist and blogger who is skeptical of alt-med treatments.

Who won? You can watch the videos for yourself here. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because in the real world — i.e., drugstore aisles across America — the business of alternative and complementary medicine is booming. Studies show that 1 in 3 Americans have tried alternative therapies, generating close to $50 billion in sales for the industry. So let’s zero in on a different question: Why is alternative medicine so popular in America?

The reasons, of course, are many. But here’s one unexpected answer: politics. While the left and right almost never agree, neither wants the government to mess with their medicine cabinet. The left has that anti-authority streak that bristles at the medical establishment, while the right has a visceral opposition to any government regulation — in this case, the Food and Drug Adminstration. In fact, the history of the modern alternative medical movement started in the halls of Congress back in the early 1990s. That’s when Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, having cured his allergies using bee pollen, became an alt-med convert. Harkin controlled the purse strings of the National Institutes of Health. He took $2 million of its then $11 billion budget and, to the dismay of many scientists, established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Later in the decade, Harkin’s Republican colleague, Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah, joined the fight. Like Harkin, Hatch believed that bee pollen had cured his allergies. In an effort to choke off the FDA’s ability to regulate dietary supplements, the two wrote the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994. The law passed unanimously, shielding the supplement industry from anything other than voluntary regulation. With the FDA able to intervene only after the drug has been made available to the public (as opposed to its typical, rigorous product testing before a drug hits shelves everywhere), a business began to explode. (It’s worth noting that many alternative medicine and dietary supplement companies are based in Hatch’s home state of Utah).

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